How to Get a Free, Non-Copy Protected Radiohead CD

The Growing Pains of the Digital Music Age

Most of my friends know I’m a stickler about music piracy. At one point or another they have casually requested to borrow one of my CDs, and I have said “of course, but just don’t copy it.”

Sometimes I get a funny knowing look in return, as though I’d winked and nudged them, and didn’t actually mind them copying the CD. Then I have to say, “No, seriously. Please don’t copy it.”

I have a thing about music piracy. I know there’s an element of hypocrisy to my attitude, since I have been known to pirate the occasional piece of computer software. My argument is that there is almost always a large, paying, corporate base for commercial software programs, and individual pirating doesn’t amount to much in the overal total. Also, this commercial base has a lot to lose if they pirate, both in terms of possible lawsuits and bad press. In the record industry, there is no guaranteed market base to pay for new music. If somebody buys a copy of a CD and puts it up on a file sharing network, nobody else in the world needs to buy it if they have access to a computer. That’s one copy sold.

Ed’s Note: He’s going to get to the free Radiohead CD, don’t worry.

The availability of cheap CD burners means that anybody with a computer can make a 100% digital copy of any existing CD. And anybody does. This supposedly costs the record company a lot of money in lost revenue; there are many valid arguments that the actual dollar amounts are greatly exaggerated, but that doesn’t really matter. The truth is that piracy is stealing, and it’s wrong whether you’re stealing from a starting soloist on an indie label, or from Metallica and a major corporation.

On one hand, I think this is technology finally coming back to bite big records companies in their fat asses. After all, the technology that allowed them to create CDs for pennies and sell them at astronomical margins is the same technology that allows consumers to create copies of these same CDs.

I guess what I’m concerned about the most is losing the music that’s important to me: the anti-Mariah, un-Celine, completely new and naked music that can’t happen without a little risk and faith on the parts of both the musicians and the record labels. But when profits drop, record companies stop risking and start signing multimillion, multi-year contracts with American Idol “artists” and similar concocted music products that have proven profitability.

So what did the record companies do in reponse to pirating? Some, like EMI, are testing out copy control schemes on their products that make them impossible to copy. What they do is scramble some information at the beginning of the disc to confuse modern, computer-based CD players. It works well, but with the side effect that any device that attempts to read ahead on the disc (like your typical anti-shock discman) will likely run into problems. And in fact, the CDs are still very easy to copy if you have older computer CD equipment, which can ignore the garbage data. And as soon as one person has copied the songs and put them online, all the time and effort (and millions of dollars) put into the copy control scheme was wasted. Which is exactly what happens on an hourly basis. Current copy protection schemes are worthless.

I had my first exposure to this copy protection with a recent CD purchase, Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief.

Ed’s Note: Radiohead’s web site is very weird. Weirder than this one.

I bought the CD, took it home, and attempted to “rip” it to my hard drive. “Ripping” is the process of copying music from a CD to your hard drive, so that you can listen to it without having to have the CD physically loaded in the computer. In this way, I have a nice library of several thousand songs, all legally purchased by me, available simultaneously. I use jukebox software (in my case, the Quintessential Music Player) to listen to any song I feel like, whenever I feel like it. Considering I’ve paid for the music, this seems like “fair use” (a popular concept in media law), and one of my favourite things is to come home, rev up the computer (which is attached to my stereo), and put my jukebox in shuffle mode, which randomly plays songs from my collection.

So here I was, trying to rip Hail to the Thief to my hard drive. Nothing was happening. In fact, as far as my computer was concerned, there wasn’t a CD in my CD drive. Not only couldn’t I rip it to my hard drive, I couldn’t even play it. It wouldn’t work on my anti-skip discman. I never tested in on my stereo’s CD player (which I never use now that my computer has all my music on it), but it did play in my car.

After some research on the internet, I discovered that this disc isn’t even a valid CD. Since it purposely violates the CD standard in order to confuse your CD player, they cannot legally display the term “Compact Disc” on the package anywhere. What you will see is a “Copy Controlled” logo on both the package and the disc, which is meant to warn you that it might cause you some grief. Unfortunately, this logo was obscured by the anti-theft packaging in the store (Hail to the Thief indeed!), and most people, myself included, wouldn’t know what to expect even if they did see the logo.

Luckily, further research unearthed this gem, the title of this article:

If you write to EMI and tell them you bought the copy-controlled version of Hail to the Thief and are very upset, they will send you a new, non-copy-controlled version. Free.

That’s it. I didn’t believe it, but I read it several places, so I thought it was worth a shot. I don’t have the text of my original message, as it was typed into a web form, but essentially I just explained my situation, my frustration, and that I understood it was their policy to replace these disc when requested. I sent the message on December 30, 2004. Today, I received a small package from EMI. Inside was a replacement disc without the copy protection, and this letter:

Dear Mr. Prowse,

We are in receipt of your email and regret that you have experienced a problem with one of our products.

Please find enclosed your replacement disc, which should be compatible with your equipment. Proof of purchase will not be required at this time.

We hope that you do not experience any problems in the future.


Nimmi Mudhar
Mfg. Dept.


Did you catch that? Proof of purchase will not be required at this time. No, I’m not saying you should just rip them off for a free CD. However, if you did buy the copy-controlled disc and want a replacement, just go here, select “Copy Controlled CDs” from the department drop down, and be sure to include your mailing address.

One particularly bitter aspect of this experience is that I’ve read that this copy controlled business only exists in Canada and Australia, where EMI is testing how accepting we will be of this technology. My advice is to take one minute of your time and make our lack of acceptance very obvious and very expensive for EMI.

The music piracy debate is complicated, and I’d like to see something fair for both producer and consumer. I imagine a wireless subscription service that would give you access to all your music anywhere in the world. You have a little physical key, and a compatible player. Plug the key into the player, and the player connects with the music network and gains access to all the songs you have purchased. This is great for everybody, because you could either buy one-time unlimited access to certain songs (like buying the CD), or time-limited access to every song in the world for $19.99 per month or something. You get what you want, and the music companies get a continual stream of revenue from a product they only have to produce once. It makes so much sense it’s crazy, but we’re a few years away from having that kind of delivery system. In the interim, we can only hope that record companies will have the foresight and humanity to hail each of us as a partner in commerce, instead of a thief.

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