Macrovision battles music lovers

As if the Napster lawsuit were not enough evidence the major music labels have lost touch with their consumers, Silicon Valley-based Macrovision has unveiled yet another technology to turn recording studios and music lovers against each other.

Macrovision announced last week that 200,000 compact discs equipped with the company’s SafeAudio copy deterrent have been shipped and more are on the way.

SafeAudio is only the latest copy deterrent from a company that has earned a reputation as the tough-talking enforcer for the entertainment industry godfathers. Not content to merely develop software, Macrovision has used every government mechanism it can get its hands on to ensure its products’ success.

Macrovision Senior Vice President Carol Flaherty said last month the company will continue pressing civil and criminal charges against anyone clever enough to break its technology. Like Adobe and Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov (Daily editorial, July 30), Macrovision apparently prefers to make enemies out of those who hack its software, rather than turn these undiscovered talents into allies, reward their ingenuity and add to the company’s pool of skills.

But prosecuting hackers is at least within Macrovision’s rights under copyright law. Other government actions taken at the company’s behest are not so clear-cut. Macrovision has worked with U.S. customs officials to ban importation of DVD players from three Asian companies whose hardware is not compatible with Macrovision’s copy protection system, as well as convinced four major retail companies to stop selling such players and stopped more than 700 eBay auctions of them, according to Flaherty.

It is the height of arrogance for the company and its cohorts in government to presume DVD players and other devices are being used for illegal copying solely because some manufacturers choose not to design their products for Macrovision’s convenience.

Indeed, in a cynical gesture of contempt for consumers and media companies alike, Macrovision has also patented technologies that could be used to defeat its copy protection system. Rather than build defenses against these technologies into its product, Macrovision has chosen the threat of legal action to maintain its status in the media world.

Yet Macrovision’s lawyers cannot bridge the gulf between music companies and average, particularly young, consumers. Rick Dube of the research firm Webnoize correctly notes no one really won the Napster suit. Closing down the popular MP3 site only drove the wedge deeper between angry music fans and the major record labels.

Even with Napster gone, album sales fell 2.8 percent in the first six months of this year, and sales of albums released in the last 18 months fell 8 percent. Dube predicts the music companies’ plans to launch their own subscription MP3 services will not recoup these losses, because consumers will continue to use free, “total access” MP3 services such as Gnutella – which, due to its peer-to-peer structure, is virtually immune to lawsuits.

If the major music companies value their customers or their profits, they will rein in Macrovision’s lawyers and its software as a first step toward rebuilding a relationship with their music-loving consumers.