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Missing the point on antipiracy technology

Last week's lead story in the music-piracy wars featured another humiliating setback for the music industry -- a new antipiracy technology that doesn't work. Anyway, that's how the headlines read. We journalists have a wonderful knack for missing the point.

That's what happened in last week's flurry of stories about Suncomm Technologies Inc. SunnComm's MediaMax CD-3 system is designed for use on music CDs, to set limits on the number of times a user can copy the music. But a Princeton University graduate student, John Alexander Halderman, found that anybody could easily beat the system by turning off the "CD autorun" feature in Microsoft's Windows operating system, or by just holding down the shift key when loading a music CD.

SunnComm became an Internet laughingstock, and the enraged CEO, Peter Jacobs, threatened to sue Halderman for spreading false information about MediaMax. He even suggested the possibility of prosecuting Halderman under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, an absurd statute that forbids attempts to bypass antipiracy systems.

To Jacobs's credit, he came to his senses within hours and retracted his threats. Music industry critics have celebrated all this as a famous victory. So of course they've been too busy to consider what's really going on.

Here's a clue. Both SunnComm and the record company BMG, which uses the SunnComm system, told the Globe that Halderman's discovery wasn't news to them. Both firms were well aware that their antipiracy system could easily be bypassed. SunnComm president Bill Whitmore said they were angry at Halderman for describing their product as "irreparably flawed." In reality, said Whitmore, MediaMax does exactly what it was designed to do.

It sounds like doublespeak. A system that's supposed to stop people from making illegal music files can easily be bypassed, allowing the user to make all the copies he wants -- yet it still works? That's utterly goofy.

Or is it? A similar system seems to work just fine for the company that's sold more music over the Internet than anybody else -- Apple Computer Inc.

Everyone knows about Apple's iTunes Music Store, where users of the company's Mac computers can buy pop songs for 99 cents a pop. But to persuade music companies to make their tunes available for sale, Apple had to devise a way to prevent customers from simply redistributing free copies of downloaded files all over the Internet.

The company chose a system called FairPlay. Instead of offering music in the standard MP3 format, all files are encoded in an alternative format called AAC. Outside of Apple's own iPod music players, few portable devices can play AAC files. In addition, each file has built-in software to limit a purchaser's replay rights. You can only listen to your tunes on up to three computers. Install the files on a fourth, and they won't play.

With all these restrictions, why are so many people happy to buy from iTunes? Because there's a loophole as big as Boston Harbor.

At the push of a button, you can burn all of your iTunes onto a CD, in the standard CD audio format. This disk will play in any standard CD player or computer. More important, you can rip it into MP3 files, just as you would with a store-bought CD. Apple says that doing so results in lousy sound quality, but we've tried it, and the results sound just fine -- certainly good enough for casual listening.

In short, the antipiracy features in iTunes are nearly as easy to bypass as SunnComm's. Yet nobody's calling iTunes "irreparably flawed." As a matter of fact, other music-selling sites on the Internet have adopted a similar approach -- building some security into the download, but letting users burn the files onto "insecure" music CDs. Are they all run by idiots?

Maybe. Or maybe the music industry has finally figured it out. Unless consumers are forced to buy computers that will not copy CDs -- fat chance -- it's impossible to completely eliminate music piracy. So instead, the industry might be designing systems that seek to gently nudge people toward honesty, rather than dragging them in chains toward the path of righteousness.

Even the music industry's campaign to sue individuals for file swapping could be part of this approach. It seems that lots of file swappers didn't even realize that what they were doing was illegal. Well, now they know.

Step two is to give people a way to make a few copies of their favorite tunes, without worrying about breaking the law. That's where systems like SunnComm's and Apple's come in. Both of them let the user make a few legal copies. Most honest people won't need any more than that. And these products are based on the assumption that most music listeners are honest.

Said SunnComm president Whitmore: "We believe that there are more law-abiding citizens and law-abiding music lovers in the world than there are thieves."

For years, critics of the industry have rightly argued that the music companies should stop treating their customers as would-be crooks. The industry may finally be listening to us. Perhaps we should try listening to them.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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