DECIDING ON DAT: Witness of the Persecution (Mar. 1988)

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The saga of R-DAT would make a good script or a TV soap opera. So much of such little consequence happens so often that regular viewers are continually entertained, but anyone can tune in after a three-month break and pick up the threads within a few minutes. The most extraordinary thing about the DAT soap is that something so trivial, n world terms, should be exercising the minds of politicians-alongside Star Wars, nuclear disarmament, national budgets, and Third World famine.

A look at the European experience helps to put the whole silly charade into perspective. The idea of a levy or tax on tape in Europe dates back to February 1973, when Edward Lyons, a British Member of Parliament, raised the matter in a government debate. At that time, British home tapers who wanted to stay within the copyright law could buy a license from a music-industry trade body called the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society. The license cost only a few pounds a year.

In September 1980, the licensing scheme was scrapped under pressure from the British Phono graphic Industry, which is the U.K. equivalent of the RIAA. The BPI wanted a punitive tax on tape instead of a token, blanket license. But they em barked on a disastrous advertising campaign, with rich stars pleading for the tax, which lost rather than gained public support. The IFPI (International Federation of Phonogram and Videogram Producers, which has headquarters in London) further undermined the industry's case by arguing that "achieving a levy of a substantial amount is probably more important than deciding how it could be distributed." At the same time, the technically naive record industry in Europe kept talking about a spoiler which would some how-magically--prevent the unauthorized copying of records. This idea had first been proposed by the curious little electronics company that had spun off from The Beatles' Apple empire. There were rumors in 1967 that the new Sgt. Pepper LP would be uncopyable. Of course, it wasn't.

Although there are several ways of preventing people from copying a disc to tape, for instance by putting an inaudible tone on the music which "beats" with the recording bias, these "single-ended" systems can always be defeat ed. If the tone is inaudible, it can, by definition, be filtered out without affecting the music.

In 1977, a committee under a British judge, Mr. Justice Whitford, published a report which said British copyright law was unintelligible. It also suggested that a tax might be the answer to home taping. But in July 1981, the British Government published a Green Pa per (discussion document) on copy right law reform which used the record industry's own nonsensical talk about a single-ended spoiler as an excuse not to put a levy on tape. As stated in this Green Paper, if the record industry could find a technically successful sys tem, then the Government would sup port it.

Soon after that, the electronics industry cut its own throat by starting to sell double-well cassette decks with high-speed dubbing facilities, and the record industry stopped talking about spoilers. So, in February 1985, the British Government did a U-turn, publishing a second Green Paper which said that a tax on tape was the only answer.

In April 1986, the Government con firmed this by publishing a White Pa per, intended as the basis for a full scale reform of copyright law, which included the imposition of a tax on audio tape.

But then the record industry shot it self in the foot. In May 1986, a matter of weeks after the British Government had agreed to tax tape, the IFPI started to campaign for Copy-code, the double-ended anti-copy system developed by CBS. The IFPI asked the European Commission in Brussels, which runs the European Common Market, to make Copy-code compulsory for DAT.

CBS and the IFPI demonstrated Copy-code to the Brussels bureaucrats in June 1986. In October 1986, the IFPI Board met and gave Copy-code its blessing as "the preferred copyright protection system." They also demonstrated it to officials from the British Patent Office, who advise the British Government on copyright matters.

Record-industry support for Copy-code hardened. However, the electronics industry, the audio press, and recording engineers started to worry.

Was the Copy-code notch really inaudible, as CBS and the IFPI were preaching to the converted? Inside the European Commission in Brussels, a split had developed be tween two departments. The department in charge of copyright wanted to introduce Copy-code as soon as possible. But another department is responsible for telecommunications, and people on that staff with an interest in audio technology were worried about Copy-code.

At the same time, news leaked out that the IFPI was working with EMI in Britain on another use of Copy-code that seemed to take its inspiration from the work of American radio pioneer Murray Crosby. A quarter-century ago, Crosby devised and patented a sys tem for automatically logging the transmission of radio commercials. This system, called Audiocom, cut a notch out of the broadcast sound and inserted an identification code to let advertisers check whether local radio stations were broadcasting all the commercials for which they had been paid.

EMI and the IFPI suggested that a digital message, like a sonic bar code, be introduced in the Copy-code notch.

This would kill two birds with one stone: The notch would tell a tape deck to stop recording, and the code would be used to automate the logging of broadcast music and the payment of copyright royalties.

EMI produced a Compact Disc with music variously notched and coded.

Then Gallup polled a cross-section of 50 people who owned CD players; they were given the EMI CD and asked to fill in a form saying whether they could hear any difference between coded and uncoded music. They could, and the coding plan was quietly dropped. But the IFPI continued to press for Copy-code.

Meanwhile, under mounting pres sure, the IFPI finally agreed to bring Copy-code out from behind closed doors by staging a joint demonstration with CBS. This took place in London in May 1987, a full year after the legal lobbying had begun. Although this Copy-code demonstration has been referred to as a "public" event, that description is barely accurate.

There were in fact two demonstrations, one in the large theater which is part of the Mayfair Hotel in Central Lon don, and the other, the next day, at EMI's Abbey Road studios in North London. The majority of people invited to the demonstrations were "friendly" observers; some "unfriendlies" were excluded. Only a few members of the more critical press were present, and in many cases only because they had heard about the demonstrations through the industry grapevine.

At the Mayfair Hotel, 200 record-company executives from 20 countries quite literally applauded the demonstrations and hectoring speeches from the IFPI panel; it was more like a religious service than a serious discussion, with DAT cast in the role of Devil.

Although the acoustics of the theater and sound system used made serious listening virtually impossible, several audio journalists present heard the difference between coded and uncoded music. When they said so, they were given a hostile reception from the re cord-industry audience.

The next day, at Abbey Road, a small audience composed mainly of audio engineers was able to give Copy-code a much more thorough hearing. The system was roundly and soundly criticized.

Secondhand reports of the London demonstrations have often been based either on the Mayfair prayer meeting alone or on an "average" of the two meetings. Only those who were present at Abbey Road (or, ideally, at both meetings) are in a position to re port accurately on the audio tests and reactions. Significantly, the record-industry executives who had been so noisy at the Mayfair failed to show up the next day at Abbey Road for the serious listening tests.

In March 1987, Ian Thomas, Director General and Chief Executive of the IFPI, had explained that his Federation had adopted Copy-code on the say-so of "leading figures in the recording studio world, including George Martin and technical experts from Polygram and Philips." George Martin is, of course, most famous for his work with The Beatles, and he is now a respected industry spokesman with his own recording studios. Martin spoke for the IFPI at the Mayfair to rally support for Copy-code.

"Please vote for Copy-code," he implored. "I can promise you that every musician in the country wants it." But under questioning, Martin acknowledged that the only listening tests he had done on the system had been with encoded music provided by CBS; he had not had a chance to use an en coder for A/B tests of known material.

Neither did George Martin turn up at Abbey Road the next day.

With George Martin's technical endorsement so obviously devalued, the IFPI cited Han Tendeloo, formerly of Polygram and now with Philips and Du Pont Optical, as one of the "leading figures" in the audio industry who had done tests which led the IFPI to endorse Copy-code. Subsequently, Tendeloo denied this, saying that the IFPI, in endorsing the implementation of Copy-code, "did not do so on my recommendation." Meanwhile, Philips had thrown a wrench into the works by suggesting an alternative system. News of this first broke in London in late April 1987, a few days before the Copy-code demonstrations took place. The Common Market Copyright Unit had organized a seminar in London and had asked CBS to demonstrate Copy-code. CBS had said no, so the organizers flew in Peter Plompen from Philips' headquarters in Holland. Plompen described what has become known as the "one-copy" or "no-clone" solution.

"The awesome thing about digital taping is that it isn't just taping, it's cloning," said George Martin in an IFPI handout. "However many copies you make, the product is just as good as you get in the studio." The Philips proposal addresses this concern.

Already, DAT recorders cannot dub in the digital domain from CD because of deliberate mismatching of the sampling frequencies (44 1 kHz for CD and 48 or 32 kHz for domestic DAT). Additionally, CD and DAT data streams have space for a copy-inhibit flag which would prevent digital dubbing, and all of the 15,000 CDs released worldwide have such a flag it place.

Plompen's proposal would allow DAT recorders to make one digital dub from any CD, adding an extra copy-inhibit flag to the copy recording. Thus, the fist dub from a CD feed would be perfect, but thereafter, any attempt at digital dubbing (i.e., cloning) would fail. This proposal angered the IFPI because it undermined the Copy-code lobby, and Philips subsequently refused to discuss it-but by then, of course, the idea was known.

Politicians all across Europe have since found themselves getting deeper into techno-legal muddles. Clearly there is a contradiction between a tape-tax law, which in effect legitimizes home taping, and a Copy-code law, which mandates recorder circuitry that prevents home taping of some pro gram material.

In theory, all Europe aims for unified laws. In practice, there is little chance of pan-European agreement on such a contentious issue. Tired of waiting, the British Government went it alone at the end of October 1987 and published its own Bill, or draft law, for copyright re form. There was no mention of a tax on tape and no mention of Copy-code or any other system. The Government minister responsible for the Bill, Kenneth Clarke, said he regarded the matter of a tape tax as a "dead duck." And for the first time ever for a Government minister, he used the word "tax" rather than "levy." The British Parliament is now debating the Bill, which should be law by the summer.

In Europe, despite garbled reports which suggest firm decisions already taken, the Brussels bureaucrats were, in December 1987, still undecided.

They appeared unwilling to hit consumers with a tax on tape, and since the London demonstration (which was attended by representatives from Brussels), they have gone cold on Copy-code. They may well compromise by opting for the one-copy sys tem proposed by Philips. The signs are that Japanese manufacturers would go along with this, although it is likely that a final decision in Europe will wait until the National Bureau of Standards in the U.S. has given its own independent verdict on Copy-code. The purchase of CBS Records by Sony probably comes too late to affect the issue, though Sony, ironically, now has a vested interest in copyright protection! (Editor's Note: Masa Namiki, general manager of Sony Corporate Communications, is quoted in Cores Publications' Japanese Industry Newsletter as saying that "Sony will not attempt to force CBS Records to drop its support of an anti-taping device for DAT decks." The report also said that Sony will not require CBS Records to market DAT cassettes or CD-V discs for Sony's benefit, having found during the 20 years of the existence of CBS/Sony Records in Japan that it was important to treat the software and hardware businesses separately.-E.P.) Meanwhile, the stop-go, on-off saga of DAT in Europe continues. The Berlin Funkausstellung, a giant consumer-electronics show held in the divided city every two years, is traditionally the time and place where major announcements are made. At the August/September 1987 show, Sony finally bit the bullet and announced plans to sell DAT in Europe beginning in October 1987. It is clear that Sony expected other Japanese companies to follow, but they did not.

Since the Berlin show, Sony has come under intense political and commercial pressure, heightened by the negotiations to buy CBS Records. After reports, denials, and denials of denials, the situation has resolved, at least temporarily, into a compromise: Sony is selling DAT machines in France and Germany only. The price of recorders in those countries has been artificially inflated to deterrent levels (equivalent to around $2,400); what's more, both France and Germany already have a tax on tape. The logic is that the record industry cannot reasonably object to the limited sale of such a high-cost machine in countries where a tax on tape is levied.

In Britain, as in most other European countries, it is possible to buy DAT machines as "gray" imports. Taiyo Yuden, a Japanese company new to the tape business, is openly selling the oddly named That's DAT cassettes.

Luxman and Akai are likely to sell small numbers of high-priced machines.

JVC could be the first company to open the real floodgates, by officially launching its two-speed DAT machine.

This is already being sold by Grundig in Germany.

Anyone in Europe who really wants a DAT deck can buy one. Yet with the high price being asked (up to twice the going tag in Japan), the format still remains something that far more people are writing about than using.

(Source: Audio magazine, Feb. 1988)

Also see:

Have DAT ... will Travel (Jul. 1991)

Digital Doctor: A look at DAT and MiniDisc (May 1997)

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Updated: Monday, 2018-07-30 8:39 PST