When Is An Audio CD Not An Audio CD?

Reader Matt V. called our attention to Ben Laurie’s blog. Ben recently purchased a Beth Orton CD from Amazon, only to discover that it had DRM on it that prevented him from playing it on his computer. Ben has since returned the CD to Amazon and filed a complaint against them with the Trading Standards Authority (a UK consumer rights organization) that Amazon is dishonestly calling it an “Audio CD”. Ben argues it isn’t an Audio CD, because he can’t play it on his computer.

We think Ben’s on the wrong track. A copy-protected album isn’t an Audio CD? Of course it is. It’s a CD, it plays audio — it’s just one needlessly crippled. We sympathize with Ben’s argument, but the bottom line is that this tactic is just a waste of time and degrades the argument. It is the sort of sullen semantic whinging that any teenager in a freshman philosophy course can be successful at making, yet never win his argument. And what is the argument? It’s not what a legally purchased album is, but what rights you have as its owner.

Further thoughts on your rights as a CD owner after the jump…

What record companies are trying to do is claim that when you have bought a CD, you don’t own it — you’ve merely licensed the rights to listen to it. There is no contract, no negotiable terms and conditions — tearing open the cellophane is enough. Not only is it not a legally valid contract but it is absolutely lop-sided, allowing companies to silently change the rights they grant you without notification or consent. We, as consumers, not only need to fight the record companies’ assertions, but strongly argue our own rights as well — that when you buy a CD, you have the right to play it on whatever hardware is capable of doing so, whenever you feel like it, even if it’s been translated by you into a different format. If the record company had its way, if it is allowed to get the DRM foothold that it wants, you won’t be able to play your albums on your computer or on your iPod. You won’t be able to sell a used CD or lend it to a friend. And if you want to listen to music you legally own in another format, you’ll have to buy another copy. The record companies will have all the rights and you’ll have none.

If Ben wins his semantic victory, what then? Amazon changes all listings of Audio CDs to the equally generic “Album” and Ben’s accomplished nothing. Semantic arguments are cheap — it’s tirelessly asserting the rights you believe you have and boycotting products when they don’t grant you those rights that is the essence of good consumerism.

Amazon and Trade Descriptions [Ben Laurie’s Links (Thanks, Matt!)
Amazon and Trade Descriptions, Round 2 [Ben Laurie’s Links]


Edit Your Comment

  1. gunnk says:

    No, I think he has a point. The problem is that by selling a CD as an audio CD — especially if it has the little CD logo on it — you are stating that the disc conforms to the Red Book Standard. If it doesn’t, you are engaging in deceptive marketing.

    Phillips (owner of the standard and the logo) has threatened companies for calling something a CD and then not adhering to the actual standard.

    Follow the link to read more about it.

  2. Mike says:

    Gunnk, that’s precisely what I was going to say. He’s got a very good point.

    Calling something an “Audio Compact Disc” means it’s got to adhere to a certain standard. It’s not our fault that that DRM-less standard was agreed upon before the music industry got its panties all up in a wad.

    Call these DRM things “music discs,” “DRM platters,” or even “copy-protection compotes” for all I care. But “Audio Compact Disc” is already taken.

  3. LTS! says:

    Instead of threatening perhaps Phillips should actually step up to the plate.

    Furthermore, why sue Amazon? They have established a policy of marking DRM CDs, especially those of the Sony rootkit fame. I would venture that they may not have even known the CD had DRM on it. They took the CD back didn’t they, even after it was opened? That says something right there, since you really aren’t supposed to do that either.

    Of course we whine about the RIAA and it’s members but then we go out an purchase new CDs and listen to the radio and continually put money into their pockets. Should we then act surprised when they lobby for legislation that trample our rights? Stop supporting them and the artists that choose to align themselves with them in the interest of making a quick few million. Support the independent artists and let the world know how you truly feel.

  4. SamC says:

    I’m with gunnk on this one. I think Matt V. is totally on the right track.

    When it comes to fraud, it is about what he was sold. He was sold an item as an “audio CD” – meaning it should conform to the Red Book standard. What he got was something that DID NOT conform.

    He was sold an item that was purported to be something else.

    We call that fraud.

    If you buy a DVD on ebay, and get a DVD-R copy instead, it’s the same thing.

    What’s next? You order real cheddar, and get velveeta. That “leather jacket” actually, it’s pleather. But it’s okay, it’s just semantics!

    Matt V is calling them on it.

    Good luck with it, Matt!

  5. Paul D says:

    Indeed, I can find nothing in the Red Book that mentions copy protection schemes.

  6. sixtoe says:

    Actually, Ben accomplished a lot. He got a widely-read consumer blog to document his effort, provide editorial, and foster discussion on the very topic he opposes.

  7. Matt Volk says:

    Sam C. – It’s isn’t me, it’s Ben Laurie. I just told Consumerist about his post.

    I think that Amazon should go back to identifing which CDs have copy protection on them. They had been doing that last fall when the Sony rootkit was discovered.

    I was also surprised Amazon deleted a negative review of the CD.

  8. Philips did make a bit of a fuss about this some time ago:


    …but I think they’re toeing the media-company line now.

    It’d certainly be neat if Philips sued every company that allowed you to buy DRM-protected discs by clicking on something that says “CDs” (or picking them off a similarly labelled shelf). I’d love to see complete CD/DRM-disc apartheid. Continuing the media-company policy of treating all customers like thieves, there would presumably be a compulsory strip-search as you left the DRM-disc section of the record store.

    But Philips wouldn’t necessarily be able to come anywhere near winning a test case (there are lots of more or less defective widgets that’re still fairly labelled as “widgets”…), and even if they did, the financial results of setting up such a great system wouldn’t necessarily be in their favour.