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ATPM 8.07
July 2002


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The User Strikes Back

by Arnold Woodworth and Ken Gruberman,

Attack of the Killer CDs

If you haven’t been paying attention to recent Mac news on the Internet, you might not know that inserting a “copy-protected CD” into your Mac’s CD drive can cause it to freeze up. Restarting your Mac won’t help, because the CD can prevent your Mac from starting up at all. The good news is that copy-protected CDs won’t do any permanent damage: your Mac will work just fine after you manage to get the problematic CD out of the drive.

In other words, this problem, although highly annoying, is not as bad as some of the hysterical headlines I’ve seen on Web sites that go something like this: “(Insert your favorite musician’s name here)’s CD Killed My Mac!”

In this article, I’ll talk about (a) what a copy-protected CD is, (b) the problems it can cause, (c) who makes them and why, (d) how to tell if a CD is copy-protected and (e) what to do if one gets stuck inside your Mac.

The Music Goes ’round and ’round, But it Doesn’t Come out Here

“Copy-protected” means that the manufacturer has attempted to make the CD impossible to copy (the colloquial term is “rip-proof”), which also means the owner is prevented from extracting tracks from the CD into the popular MP3 format. I say attempted because all methods so far have been defeated. One protection method, used by Sony, was defeated by drawing along the rim of a CD with a felt-tip marker…but that’s another story.

The disks in question are music CDs that are designed to work in audio CD players, but not in computer drives. This is accomplished because the disks have corrupted data in an area of the CD which computers normally read but which consumer-based players supposedly ignore—in addition, the corrupted data was intended only to confuse computers, not to stop them from working altogether.

This method is used mainly by Sony, but according to Garry Margolis, the current president of the Audio Engineering Society (AES), there is more than one system in use. Another method is called the Cactus system, and was developed by Midbar of Israel (“midbar” is “desert” in Hebrew), which screws up the audio data and depends on the error correction in consumer players to restore the playability; the error correction in computer drives doesn’t work the same way as consumer players. Discs protected with the Cactus system won’t hang a Mac.

However, there is no way to tell which type of protection was used without inserting the disc in the machine. What a mess.

Problems, Problems!

Unfortunately, the truth is that copy-protected CDs can completely disable Macs—and to a lesser degree PCs—if only temporarily. There have been many reports of Macs freezing up as soon as a copy-protected CD was inserted. Even if a problematic music CD doesn’t freeze your Mac, be sure to eject it before shutting down or restarting your Mac, as the CD could prevent your computer from starting up again.

As stated before, your Mac will work normally again, after the copy-protected CD is ejected from the drive…and that’s where the fun begins.

The newest QuickSilver desktop Macs and the brand-new iBooks, PowerBooks, and iMacs have no physical button to press to get the CD to eject: they have to use the media eject key on the keyboard to do so. That’s when the problem becomes serious. People who know the right tricks can usually find a way to eject the offending CD; those who don’t have to take their Macs into a repair shop. And those who take their Macs to a repair shop are in for a rude awakening when they discover their AppleCare warranty doesn’t cover the cost of dealing with these CDs and the havoc they may create. The reason is Apple considers the CD to be the problem; they don’t want to pay every time a user slips one of them into a Mac.

As you can see, knowing how to eject one of these CDs can save you time, money, and aggravation. I’ll tell you everything you need to know in a couple of minutes, but first, let’s take a look at who created the problem in the first place.

How to Identify a Copy-Protected CD

According to the Web sites I researched for this article, companies started copy protecting music CDs around January 2000. I think it’s safe to say than any CD purchased before that date is not copy-protected. Most copy-protected CDs released in 2000 and 2001 were sold in Europe and not in the US. Probably only a few CDs you bought in 2000 or 2001 are copy-protected. This year, an increasing number of music CDs are copy-protected and are not safe to put in your Mac.

Sometimes, you can identify a copy-protected CD when you’re still in the store. Starting this year, many (but not all) copy-protected CDs are now marked “Will not work on a PC/Mac,” both on the jewel case and on the CD itself. Look carefully. The words may be in very small print, or worse, they might not be there at all. Remember: not all copy-protected CDs are labeled as such!

Garry Margolis adds:

Another thing to keep in mind: Philips (the company that helped invent the audio CD) has notified record companies that copy-protected CDs do not meet the Red Book specifications; i.e. the official specifications on what constitutes a CD-Audio disc. Therefore, copy-protected CDs are not supposed to use the CD logo on the disc or package. It’s a fairly safe bet that if the CD logo is not on the disc, it has copy protection…but there is no guarantee at this point that a disc or package with a CD logo is free of this problem either.

What to Do If a Copy-Protected CD Gets Stuck in Your Mac

Now we get to the good part: if a CD gets stuck in your Mac, how do you get it out?

Suppose you’re using Mac OS X on your Mac, and suppose you stick a copy-protected CD into it. Your Mac will try to read the CD and fail, but it will never give up trying. As a result, the icon for that CD never appears on your screen. You are left with no icon to drag to the trash. This is where many beginners get stuck. Before you restart:

Trick #1

If you’re using Mac OS X, a bad CD shouldn’t freeze your Mac altogether. Use the iTunes application (or the iDVD application) to eject the CD. In the iTunes window, click the “Eject” button or the “Burn CD” button. This trick can work only in Mac OS X. Earlier versions of the Mac OS will freeze up altogether.

The next three tricks will work no matter what version of the Mac OS you are running.

Trick #2

If your CD or DVD drive has a manual eject button, try it. An older Mac has an eject button on the front panel, typically right below the drive. Some PowerBooks had them embedded in the drive tray, or right next to it.

Trick #3

In addition to the button, most CD and DVD drives have a tiny manual eject hole sized for the end of a paper clip. You’ll need to straighten out a paper clip first, then poke the end of the wire into the manual eject hole.

Unfortunately, that hole is hidden from view in the new G4 towers and in the new iMac G4. Fortunately, you can gently pry open the door that hides the CD or DVD drive, then shine a flashlight in. If the drive has a manual eject hole (not all do), you should be able to spot it.

Trick #4

OK, we’re at the point where you just have to restart your Mac. The instant you hear the startup sound, press your mouse button and hold it down until the CD pops out. This trick has been around since the first Mac appeared in 1984, and was traditionally the way you got a stuck floppy disk out of the drive.

The CD should eject almost immediately after the “Happy Mac” appears on your screen; if it doesn’t, keep holding the mouse button down for a minute. If it still hasn’t come out, try tricks 2 & 3 again.

Trick #5

This trick works only with Mac OS X. It is intended to get your Mac started up again despite the bad CD. Restart your Mac: you’ll need to use the reset button. (The location of the reset button depends on what model of Mac or iMac you have.) The instant you hear the startup sound, hold down the “x” key on your keyboard until your Mac has started up. That finishes trick #5: now try Trick #1 again.

If none of these tricks work, you’ll probably need to call for help. However, keep in mind that the best way you can avoid trouble is to not put a copy-protected CD in your Mac in the first place. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.


Also in This Series

Reader Comments (10)

anonymous · July 8, 2002 - 10:35 EST #1
Thanks for the info.

One question, What is to prevent us from using a regular CD player connected to my Mac to record the audio, then rip to MP3?

Ok, so the quality won't be as good as the original, but what MP3 is?

They (RIAA) will never win this battle.
Musicfan · July 8, 2002 - 12:10 EST #2
It's also possible to record the digital information directly from a CD player with digital out to a DAT or computer SP/DIF connection directly and THEN rip after some minor sound editing and get MP3 copies just as good as before.

What the recording industry doesn't realize is that it MUST be convenient for users (i.e. no hampering copy protection bullpuckey) and compilations are king. Nobody much cares to actually listen to a CD straight through any more. How dull and boring is that (for the most part)?

Time for them to realize this Genie ain't going back in the bottle.
anonymous · July 8, 2002 - 13:41 EST #3
You can also boot Macs of more recent vintage to open firmware by holding the command+O+F key combination. When you get the open firmware prompt, type "eject cd" and the disk will eject. You can then type "mac-boot" to continue startup.
anonymous · July 8, 2002 - 19:18 EST #4
The big problem as I see it is the fact that a CD today costs nearly as much as a DVD. If they lowered the price down to where it just wasn't worth it to bootleg them and/or concentrate on giving real added value to legitimate copies, piracy would reduce significantly.

RIAA should give folks some motivation to behave themselves. Oh and putting out some music WORTH buying would be a novel idea too.

"Rock and roll's been goin' downhill ever since Buddy Holly died..." --John Milner
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · July 8, 2002 - 22:14 EST #5
To anonymous comment about recording audio on the Mac from a regular audio CD player:

Nothing would stop you, but you introduce two new factors, assuming you don't do the digital step that Musicfan described (how many people actually have a DAT or computer SP/DIF connection?). First, you're taking the audio through an analog step, further degrading the quality. Ripping directly from the CD keeps it digital and, consequently, a copy (if the files are left uncompressed and not converted to MP3) of a CD is supposed to be absolutely identical to the original. Second, even if someone didn't care about the sound going through a step of analog, you'd only be able to digitize the whole album in real time. That means, full albums are going to take about an hour to rip.

And to the anonymous comment about reducing piracy by reducing CD cost and/or adding benefit: as I stated in a comment on another page, sure, you might reduce piracy to a degree, but you'll never come close to eliminating it. In my opinion, it wouldn't matter if full CD albums cost 50 cents each, you'll get people pirating the music for no other reason than just because they can.
EMS · July 9, 2002 - 00:07 EST #6
In response to Musicfan's comment, I'd just like to say for the record that I still like to listen to entire CDs. I often will leave the same CD in my vehicle for weeks, listening to it over and over again so that I can fully appreciate its beauty. Often, my opinion of the music changes completely (usually for the better) after repeated listening. I've probably listened to Kid A by Radiohead in its entirety 150 times.
dragon_x · July 9, 2002 - 09:09 EST #7
One small point -- an MP3 is NEVER an exact copy. Now some people claim they cannot hear the difference. I'm not sure how that is possible, but I believe them. I suppose it depends on the material and source, but often -- even at high bit rate (200kbps) recordings, I can hear a loss or distortion in the highs -- usually with cymbals. MP3 uses lossy compression (lousy?) and is like the JPEG equivalent in the audio world. Compression is about 10:1 with low quality (128kbps or lower) and about 5:1 with high quality (200kbps or higher). Even if most of the data is unimportant, you are still LOSING data that can not be restored.

NOBODY should ever have to buy these evil 'CDs.' They are all junk. It seems that this is a cheap and annoying attempt to get people to purchase the same CD five times - once for home, another for the office, again for the car, and probably again for your computer, but then it doesn't work on ANY computer, so how could you get the CD onto your iPod?

These greedy recording execs need to be smacked around where it hurts -- in their wallets!
Kelsey Bean and Jesi Booth · March 22, 2004 - 15:33 EST #8
Did the people who invented these things even know what they do to computers? Or did they invent because their backwards thinking said it was funny? These CD's, if you call them that, should be abolished. When people buy an album, they expect that they can listen to it anytime they want-which encludes when they are using the computer. not only can consumers not listen to the CD they paid their hard earned money for, but when they put it into their PC, they now have a piece of broken technology on their hands that they need to fix (and spend 10x that of what they spent on the cd in the first place).
Bill P. · December 30, 2004 - 20:52 EST #9
Lee: I would like to point out a small flaw in what you are saying, and that is Analog is HIGHER quality than digital. A good needle, a new record, and a good ear will tell you the difference between a CD and a record. The record sounds better. Look it up on How Stuff Works if you would like to.

This is just a minor detail, but does show flaws in the record company's sales pitches for selling CDs originally.
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · December 30, 2004 - 21:20 EST #10
Bill - I may have to take time to research it later, but I just don't see how what you say is possible. Running audio through an analog channel can introduce noise in the signal.

But I think perhaps we both need clarification. I agree that a good quality original analog recording has more fidelity than an original digital recording, due to the limitations of digital recording. But this is not what I was talking about. I was talking about making a copy of a source that's already digital.

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