February 4, 2004 4:55 PM PST

SunnComm buys music antipiracy company

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CD copy protection company SunnComm Technologies said Wednesday said it has agreed to buy another firm to help move music antipiracy efforts to a new level.

The company has struck an agreement to purchase the United Kingdom-based Darknoise Technologies, which claims to have technology that can guard against people copying CDs in even the most old-fashioned ways.

Unlike existing CD copy protection, which tries to make CD music files invisible or unreadable to computers and other copiers, Darknoise actually modifies the audio of the songs slightly. If those songs are then copied--even by holding a tape recorder in front of a stereo speaker--the formerly inaudible Darknoise addition becomes audible and makes the copy unlistenable, the company claims.

"This stuff works," SunnComm Chief Executive Officer Peter Jacobs said. "The science is real. You can't hear it when (a piece of music) is being used properly, and you can do nothing but hear it when a song is copied improperly."

If the Darknoise technology holds up to continued testing, it could be a substantial development in the ongoing technological arms race between would-be music copiers and record labels eager to reduce or eliminate unauthorized copying.

SunnComm and rival Macrovision already create technology that interferes with the ability to make identical digital copies of files on a CD or turn them into compressed digital files such as MP3s. However, the anticopying technology has more difficulty with nondigital copies.

Today, that means that even a protected CD can be copied simply by intercepting the audio signal on the way to the speakers and rerouting it to a recording device. This loophole in digital copy protection is often known as the "analog hole."

The Darknoise technology is in some ways analogous to the ubiquitous videotape copy protection Macrovision created, which is effectively mandated by copyright law in the United States. In that tool, the video is slightly modified so that anyone trying to make direct VCR-to-VCR copies winds up with unusable copies.

The company says Darknoise's technology functions no matter how the music file is being copied, however. That ranges from trying to "rip" an MP3 song from a CD to trying to record a song off the radio. Any of those examples, if used on a song with the Darknoise audio technology applied, would result in an unusable copy, the company says.

Several U.S. record executives said they were not familiar with the technology. Jacobs said he plans to show it later this week to executives at Bertelsmann music unit BMG, which currently uses SunnComm's older copy protection technology.

BMG's first test of SunnComm's antipiracy tools ran into controversy after a Princeton graduate student showed how to evade them by simply pressing a computer's Shift key. SunnComm threatened to sue the student but later retracted the threat, saying the revelation had been expected and did not undermine the company's technology.

 

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