Record company BMG said Friday that it planned to release its first copy-protected compact disc in the United States this month in an attempt to deter music pirates from churning out multiple copies of CDs.
The move by BMG, a Bertelsmann subsidiary whose artists include Elvis Presley and Alicia Keys, marks the start of what is expected to be a wave of copy-protected CDs from the labels, which blame unauthorized copying for the sharp drop-off in CD sales in the weeks after a record is released.
But the technology being used by BMG makes it cumbersome -- not impossible -- to make digital copies of a disc's contents.
BMG isn't trying out the technology on any of its biggest moneymakers. The first release, due Sept. 23, is "Comin' From Where I'm From" by Anthony Hamilton, an obscure R&B; singer-songwriter with one previous album to his credit.
Critics of protected CDs say pirates invariably find ways to defeat their restrictions. The only real effect of the discs, they say, is to make it more difficult for shoppers to enjoy the music they buy.
On the other hand, some analysts say putting limits on CD copying can bolster the labels' anti-piracy efforts, which so far have focused on unauthorized downloading and sharing of songs.
BMG and the four other major record companies this week sued 261 people accused of sharing songs online without permission.
The labels have released more than 150 million protected CDs overseas, using technologies designed to stop a disc's songs from being "ripped" onto a computer and then copied.
But label executives didn't think that type of disc could succeed in the United States, where so many music fans use computers to manage their collections and make customized CDs.
"Those demands we can't simply ignore," said Thomas Hesse, chief strategic officer at BMG. "We should allow them to copy to CD to the extent that it's within personal use."
Using software developed by SunnComm Technologies Inc. of Phoenix, the Hamilton CD will contain two copies of each song. One can be played but not duplicated, and the other can be stored on a PC, moved to selected portable players and burned to three new discs.
Buyers also will be able to steer their friends to downloadable versions that can be played for 10 days.
One loophole is that those three discs can themselves be ripped and copied without limit. SunnComm has demonstrated a new version of its software designed to close that loophole, but it has yet to be deployed.
The Hamilton disc will carry a lower suggested retail price -- $13.98 -- than a typical new release and will include a label informing consumers about the restrictions.
Hesse said it was important to start selling protected discs even though the technology isn't foolproof.
"We think it's sending the right signal, and such a 'speed bump' to large-scale copying is the right initiative," he said.
Altogether, the major labels are testing protected-CD technology from at least three companies that say they have closed the loophole. More labels are expected to join BMG in releasing protected titles this year.
Last year, Vivendi Universal's Universal Music Group released four CDs whose songs could be ripped but not copied. It held off on releasing more protected CDs until better technology became available.
Whether protected CDs make a dent in piracy is an open question. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the Swiss trade association representing the global recording industry, said in April that "the German market stands out as worst-affected by mass CD burning" in Europe -- even though the labels have released more protected CDs there than in any other European nation.