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Copy-blocked CD tops U.S. charts

For the first time, the No. 1 album in the United States is loaded with anticopying protections, marking a clear step into the mainstream for the controversial technology.

According to figures released by Nielsen SoundScan, Velvet Revolver’s “Contraband” was the top-selling album in America last week, despite being prominently labeled on its cover as being “protected against unauthorized duplication.”

The success of the album is likely to prompt more experiments from BMG, the band’s label, and other record companies, industry watchers said.

“It’s too soon to tell whether the rest of the industry is going to be heartened by this,” said Mike McGuire, an analyst at GartnerG2. “But clearly, there are going to be a lot of people who are very encouraged by the fact it is out on the marketplace.”

The step forward is part of a slow increase in the flow of copy-protected compact discs into the American market, after several years of stalled progress. If the pace increases without substantial consumer backlash, the technology could become as commonplace as the antipiracy technology on DVDs, ultimately changing the way that consumers use their purchased music.

For several years, the big record labels have experimented with various versions of the technology, worried by the explosive popularity of CD burners and online file trading.

However, they have been wary of releasing the technology in the U.S. market on a wide scale. Early versions of copy-protected CDs had problems playing in some CD players and computers, prompting customer complaints and even recalls.

A vocal segment of the online population has been intensely critical of the copy protection plans, leading record label executives to worry about potential consumer reaction. Some artists, such as Virgin Records singer Ben Harper, have been bitterly angry at their labels’ decision to include the technology without their approval.

The test with Velvet Revolver, a group made of alumni from Stone Temple Pilots, Guns N’ Roses and others, was the largest yet for BMG. The test uses MediaMax copy protection from BMG partner SunnComm International. The label says it does plan a growing number of protected releases over the course of this year, but is still choosing which CDs will include the technology on a case-by-case basis.

“We’re thrilled with the results we’ve seen and the apparent consumer acceptance,” said Jordan Katz, an executive vice president in BMG’s distribution arm. The company has released a total of 12 “copy managed” discs, with more than 2.5 million units now in the market, he said.

iPods still a problem

Like other recent copy-protected albums, the Velvet Revolver disc includes technology that blocks direct copying or ripping of the CD tracks to MP3 format. It also comes preloaded with songs in Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, which can be transferred to a computer or to many portable digital music players.

As in earlier tests by BMG and SunnComm, the copy protection on the Velvet Revolver disc can be simply disabled by pushing the “Shift” key on a computer while the CD is loading, which blocks the SunnComm software from being installed. The companies say they have long been aware of the work-around but that they were not trying to create an unhackable protection.

According to SunnComm, few purchasers have complained about the anticopying tools, although angry postings on sites such as Amazon.com are common. The sticker on the front of the Velvet Revolver CD and a link inside the software that loads automatically on a computer, once a user has given permission, points to SunnComm’s Web site.

“We hear from less than half of one percent of people who have the Velvet Revolver disc,” SunnComm CEO Peter Jacobs said. “Most of those questions are related to getting the songs onto an iPod.”

However, the inability to move songs to Apple’s popular digital music player, as well as to other devices that don’t support Microsoft’s Windows Media digital rights management services, is a serious shortcoming. Jacobs says SunnComm recognizes that-and that the company’s next version will go beyond the Microsoft files and be able to create multiple kinds of digital files that will be compatible with the iPod.

But for now, iPod-owning Velvet Revolver fans don’t have a direct alternative.

“We are actively working with Apple to provide a long-term solution to this issue,” a posting on SunnComm’s Web site reads. “We encourage you to provide feedback to Apple, requesting they implement a solution that will enable the iPod to support other secure music formats.”

Also on Thursday, SunnComm announced that EMI Music would begin using its technology on advance and promotional releases. That marks the second major label, following BMG, to adopt SunnComm’s tools officially, although others are also testing them.

EMI Music has “been encouraged by the success that SunnComm’s MediaMax product has enjoyed,” Richard Cottrell, global head of antipiracy for the record label, said in a statement. “We are pleased that SunnComm is developing a product that improves our ability to protect our artists’ works, especially during the prerelease phase.”

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