The User Strikes Back
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Apple’s official explanation of the copy-protected CD problem and recommended ways of dealing with it.
- Is that new CD you just bought safe to put into your Mac? Want more info on your rights as a consumer? Find out at Web sites: Fat Chuck’s Corrupt CDs, Corrupt Audio Disc Information, and Corrupt CDs: The List.
- The official record company stance on Internet music sharing.
- How you can protect your legal right to copy and write CDs.
- Write your representative on this issue.
- The Gnutella network. Reliable Kazaa-based clients are not yet available on the Mac, so you’ll want LimeWire.