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How Sony-BMG stole Christmas

For Christmas this year (2005), amongst other things I gave my children a self made "token" for a CD. It's always difficult to predict what they'll like, so this seemed a good way of giving them some music that they'd enjoy. Nanny and Grandad were supplying the children with MP3 players for Christmas, so this would fit in nicely and give them something to listen to.

Two CDs were ordered from www.cdwow.com (who I recommend. They are very efficient and in no way to blame for the following saga) and two parcels arrived a few days later.

Sadly, the daughter who had asked for Dido's "Life For Rent" didn't receive a CD at all, but a Sony-BMG copy-protected disc.

  
It initially looks quite like a CD, but note the copy-control logo on the front and the lack of a "Compact Disc Digital Audio" label anywhere on the package.


A close-up of the label on the back. Note that it says nothing about this being a proper CD and something about it not working on computers which don't run Microsoft Windows. Even if you do use Microsoft Windows, you should be very wary of such discs as Sony have in the past included software which compromises the security of Windows PCs on their music discs:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2005_Sony_CD_copy_protection_controversy

Even if you are happy with allowing Sony to compromise the security of your Windows PC, you will find that the files made available by these discs are low quality .wma files, incompatible with some MP3 players and of a low bit rate which gives low sound quality.

What happened when I tried it

Inserting this discs into the computer resulted in a lot of noise from the CD-ROM drive which span at high speed for a long time. The computer didn't want to let me eject the disc either. This could cause damage to a CD-ROM drive.

The disc would not allow the contents to be copied to an MP3 player. So, it's useless for my daughter to use on her Christmas present.

Played on a normal audio CD player, the disc mostly works. However, it produces the odd popping sound. I can't say for certain that this isn't intended, but it seems like a pretty poor show on the part of Dido's brother Rollo Armstrong (who produced the recording), if this is actually the case. Copy Control apparently deliberately includes uncorrectable errors on the disc in order to make copying more difficult. Like me, you remember the old demos of CD error correction on such TV shows as Tomorrow's World. This has been defeated on these discs ! So, it is probably the case that this lower sound quality is another artifact of Sony's customer hostile way of punishing honest people who buy their discs in order to try to put off people who don't... (see later when I tried to measure these errors. Others have reported this, but it seems like it may not be the case with this particular disc).

The damaged error correction data on the disc also would mean that the disc is far less tolerant of small scratches than a proper CD with intact error correction would be.

Why you really don't want these discs

With these discs, you can't expect the same sound quality as from a convenitional CD. They are not as durable as a conventional CD, and the music on them can't be listened to on your computer or MP3 player like is possible with a conventional CD.

So much for "Perfect sound that lasts forever" (a 1980s Sony advertising claim for CD).

A closer look at the disc

A closeup photo reveals that unlike a normal CD, this disc has a couple of extra sessions on the outside. This is difficult to photograph, but you can dimly see concentric circles on this photo:

If seems that these extra sessions cause the disc to fail to work on a CD-ROM drive.

Returning the disc

23rd January 2006

I contacted BMG Sony through their web site and received the following reply on the 23rd of January from [email protected]:

Dear David,

Many thanks for taking the time to write to SonyBMG.

I have a version of this disc that will play in your system so could you
please send me your full postal address and I will arrange for a prepaid
envelope to be sent out to you.  If you could then return me the disc,
and proof of purchase and we will send you a new version that should
meet your requirements.  If you have no proof of purchase we will check
the disc is a valid BMG UK version before sending you the new disc.


Kind regards

Joyce Okuya

This sounded really positive. I'm going to be sent a different version of the disc which will work. Excellent.

I sent a reply with my address, the envelope turned up a couple of days later with this covering letter:

It's good to see that Sony-BMG acknowledge this to be a faulty CD. So, hopefully I'll be sent a working one instead.


Sony-BMG's supplied freepost envelope.

I sent off the disc with a covering letter including my address and asked the post office for proof of posting. Also, because I am cautious, I took the photos of the disc and these letters etc. before sending it all off, so I'd have some proof of ever having had them.

February 6th 2006

No replacement had turned up yet. So, I sent further email:
Joyce,

It has now been well over a month in which my daughter has not been
able to enjoy the "copy protected" disc that she received as a
Christmas present.

I posted the disc back to you on the 26th of January, hoping for the
rapid exchange of a proper CD so that my daughter could enjoy the
product.

Can you please give me an update of when we can expect a replacement
disc to turn up, so that my daughter can enjoy the present I bought
her and which is rightly hers.

All the other Christmas presents that I bought are with the people I
bought them for. This example stands alone as a present that had to be
returned due entirely to its manufacturer's total disregard of us as
legitimate customers.

Hoping for a quick reply, and a usable copy of the music soon,

David.

February 10th 2006

Joyce replies:
Dear David,

I have yet to receive your daughter's CD in the post. If I don't receive
by Monday I'll contact you again. Did you send the CD via post office?
If so you could ask them to track it.

Regards,

Joyce

My reply to Joyce:
Joyce,

I sent the parcel using your envelope on the 26th of January. I have
proof of posting for it.

I find it very hard to believe that it has gone missing in the post.
For my business I send hundreds of parcels a year, all from the local
post office, and have yet to have a single one go missing.

Yours,

David.

February 13th 2006

A further reply from Joyce, which was beginning to sound like the issue might be resolved:
Dear David,

I have yet to receive your CD so have enclosed the new version. This
will be sent in tonight's post.

Kind regards

Joyce Okuya

February 14th 2006

A parcel turned up in the post this morning. This looked like it would be the end of the issue. However, on opening the parcel I find the following:
  
It's a disc, but it's not the full retail package as I'd returned. No proper jewel case, no printed material at all. And what's more, it has the same concentric ring markings on the disc and a nice set of scratches to go with them. This doesn't work on my computer any better than the previous copy did, and it doesn't look like much of a present, either.

The covering letter with the non-working replacement disc, which is still not actually a CD.

It beggers belief that any company would treat its customers like this.

Given that they've eventually sent me a non working disc without a sleeve, I'd have got a better "retail experience" from downloading a set of MP3s of the music and burning my own disc. At least that would be playable.

My email to Joyce:

Joyce,

I just received your parcel.

This goes from bad to worse. What you've sent me is a disc without a
proper jewel case, without a printed insert, and despite your letter
describing this as a "new version", the same non-working contents as
the copy I had previously.

What's more, this replacement disc has a number of scratches on the
playing side which were not on the disc I returned to you.

It appears for all the world that you've simply sent me someone else's
returned disc.

I want a proper working CD. A disc which meets the original standards
laid out for CDs. One which will work on all CD players. This rubbish
is of no use.

The disc I sent to you had a jewel case, a printed insert etc. It was
the full retail bundle. As I explained to you, I bought this as a
present for my daughter. I don't want to give her what looks like a
shoddy knock-off, and I'm amazed that Sony-BMG wants their product
represented in this way.

Please send an actual CD. One with a jewel case and a printed insert.
A complete product like that I've already paid for and that I should
have been able to buy in the first place.

We're now half way through February. My daughter still can't enjoy her
Christmas present. What are you going to do about it ?

David

February 15th 2006

I put this web page together and sent the following additional email to Joyce:

Joyce,

I've put together a web page about what has been going on with this disc.

You can find the content here:

  http://www.hembrow.eu/sonybmg/

I'm still waiting for a satisfactory outcome.

Yours,

David.

February 16th 2006

Another unsatisfactory reply:
Dear David,

As I stated to you in previous email I had yet to receive the CD in the
post and it is still the case. We do not have the jewel cases here. I
did suggest to you that you should enquire in the post office as to what
has happened to your package.

Under the circumstances I thought as good will I would send you the CD
despite not having any proof of purchase. Not receiving the CD is no
fault of our own. From my end I have what I can do.

Regards,

Joyce

Still no working CD from Sony.

February 23rd 2006

I'd not had a chance to do anything else on this, and then suddenly an envelope turned up in the post containing a replacement disc.

Accompanying letter


The new disc.

You'll notice straight away that this replacement also has Copy Control. So, I've yet to be sent the fabled proper CD version of this title.

February 26th 2006

It turns out that copycontrol can be defeated by sellotape. This has to be applied over the excess sessions on the disc. If you overlap too much onto the playable area you won't be able to play the last track.
Put sellotape here and you _can_ put the tracks on the disc on your MP3 player.

Measuring the error rate

I noticed that the two different versions of the disc that I now have are different pressings and when I put tape on the discs and copied the content to my computer, I found them to give different files on the hard disc. Despite this, the clicks audible on the disc, especially at the end of the intake of breath at the start of track 3 "life for rent" are in exactly the same place on both discs.

This indicates that it is likely that there are no uncorrectable errors on the disc and that the clicks are due to errors in the recording.

So, I decided to count the actual uncorrectable errors on the disc using the following setup.
A counter (Philips PM6666, capable of counting up to 120MHz on the setting in use) wired up to an old CD player.


This antiquated CD player uses the Philips SAA7020 chip which has an uncorrected error output on pin 36. This is what is connected into the counter.

I tried this arrangement with the oldest CD I own and with the most scratched CD I own. The former generated a couple of dozen uncorrected errors, the latter to my surprise generated none at all. The error correction code which is part of the CD standard is very impressive, and all the errors generated by those scratches were being corrected.

Then I tried both of the Dido discs I've been sent. A few uncorrected errors from the scratched replacement disc, none from the more recent one.

So, I'm afraid I no longer believe that the clicks are due to uncorrected data on the disc. They must be in the recording. So, I'm back to blaming Rollo Armstrong for the clicks rather than Sony BMG.

This doesn't necessarily let Sony BMG off. It could just be that this particular title doesn't have uncorrectable errors. That could be deliberate or accidental.

It could also be the case that the discs do actually contain deliberate correctable errors. These are handled internally to the chipset, so I can't count them with my equipment. That would still mean they will be less robust than discs without those errors. So, discs would sound right when new but as they get scratched they will degrade quicker. It would also do absolutely nothing to slow down any attempt to make a copy of the disc, so would be a fairly daft thing to do, even in the surreal world of the modern record company.

It would be very helpful if someone from Sony BMG could confirm to me whether there are deliberate errors on the discs, correctable or uncorrectable. What I do know is that my daughter's cheap CD player doesn't seem to like playing these particular CDs without occasional clicks and pauses - so it's just as well that she can now listen to the MP3s I've made as they play perfectly.

What next ?

Sony-BMG have now managed to send me a replacement disc. Sadly it is just like the original disc, and they have still not sent me a proper CD. My daughter is still having trouble with playing the replacement disc.

The new disc doesn't appear to have uncorrected errors on it, so what we're hearing is the content of the recording - warts and all.

It seems that so long as you are willing to put strips of sellotape on your disc you can use this like a normal CD and the tracks can then be listened to on your MP3 player. Or, the tracks can be copied to a CDR to give a proper CD audio disc playable on all equipment.

This of course all gets in the way of legitimate customers and actually promotes the making of copies of the disc. This surely makes Sony's copy control system completely pointless. You have to wonder what they think they gain from doing this.

I am still waiting for an apology from Sony-BMG for the shoddy way in which I and my daughter have been treated.

I'm not impressed.

I have to wonder if the artist is impressed. I know I wouldn't want what I've made to be represented like this.

How to identify a real CD

Real CDs comform to the "Red Book" standard which was used to produce CDs from the early 1980s onwards. Such discs will play on any CD player and can be used in all normal ways including copying the tracks onto MP3 players. Such a CD will have the following logo on it:

***** If this logo isn't present, don't buy the disc ! *****

The interesting thing about the red book standard is that it was defined by Philips and Sony. The same Sony as are now ignoring it.

There are more details of the logo requirements here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Book_%28audio_CD_standard%29
http://www.gnscd.com/cdlogo.htm

Links

More details of what "Copy Control" does:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copy_Control


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