Do You Copy?
Will Digital Audio Tape bring digital clarity to domestic tape recording or will the major record companies use it to impose restrictions on what you can do with recordings you've already paid for?
TO SOME OF you, the news that DAT - Digital Audio Tape - machines are now available in Britain won't be all that fresh. But whatever you know about DAT, the system, nobody really seems to know too much about DAT, the controversy.
Perhaps a little background is in order. Briefly, the DAT system allows you to record a digitally encoded representation of an analogue signal - music if you like - that can then be converted back into an analogue signal for playback. The main advantage of this system is that it avoids the problems of signal degradation normally associated with successive generations of copies of music - from multitrack master to mixed master to duplicate mixed master to vinyl pressing to cassette to play in the car... Bear in mind that an analogue signal is subject to distortion at all stages of copying and that tape noise (hiss) builds up as the square of the number of times the recording has been copied.
By eliminating noise and distortion DAT offers to improve the quality of the tape recordings we regularly use in our lives. Sounds good, doesn't it? But there are problems.
The practical problems that arise are not problems associated with the design or manufacture of the equipment, as you might imagine, but ones of copyright. Said the IFPI (International Federation of Phonogram and Videogram Producers): "The master-quality copying of our copyrighted sound recordings by DAT recorders threatens the future ability of our industry to create and produce recorded music." The IFPI are obviously convinced that the introduction of DAT wil open the floodgates on bootlegging. Sounds like the compact cassette scare all over again.
Because the Japanese stood to benefit from the success of DAT they seemed less than eager to become involved in anything that might handicap it. And, of course, they'd be the ones that had to build any copy-protect circuitry into DAT machines. The British and American record companies, on the other hand, were (and still are) frightened.
The original proposal for a copy-protection system came from CBS and was called Copycode. The idea was to remove a band of frequencies from the recording - within the audio spectrum - which a suitably-equipped DAT recorder would detect and then drop itself out of Record mode for 20-30 seconds. CBS claimed this notch didn't impair the quality of the recording. George Martin agreed - but seemed to be the only one. Then Sony bought out CBS...
The latest proposal is called Unicopy and is intended to limit the number of DAT copies that can be made from a CD. Reading between the lines, it seems to go something like this: there is a facility included, but currently unused, to include a "flag" in the CD datastream. This could be used to tell a DAT machine when to permit a recording and when not to. There is also the alternative of inserting this flag into the datastream recorded on the DAT cassette (whether the recording is being made from a CD, LP or another tape), thus preventing further copies being made of it. Just how it is hoped to juggle these facilities to allow you to make only one copy of any legitimate recording you've purchased is someone else's problem. Whether one copy of an album you've paid good money for is enough, is yours.
Now, I don't particularly want to see the record companies deprived of their royalties - even if the stranglehold the majors have on music is an unhealthy one. And I certainly don't want to see musicians and songwriters deprived of theirs, but who is a copy-protection system going to affect? It's certainly going to stop you and I freely making DAT copies of CDs we've already paid for for use in our car DAT players, personal DAT stereos and so on. But is it going to deter the organised bootleggers? It's not worth our while to interfere with a new DAT recorder to enable us to freely copy recordings - assuming we know what we're doing and the equipment survives the ordeal, the guarantee has certainly been invalidated. But it's most definitely worth the while of the big-time bootlegger to sort out which chip to remove or devise a "copy protect defeat" system. The result would be to prevent domestic copying of CDs and slightly inconvenience commercial bootlegging. If for "domestic" you read "harmless" and for "commercial" you read "damaging" you'll be far more enlightened than the record industry at this point in time.
Editorial by Tim Goodyer
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