Copy-protection titles to bow this month

Stepping gingerly in the world of anti-piracy technologies, BMG said it will start distributing promotional CDs in the U.S. with copyright protection, with the first titles being shipped out later this month.

Move ups the ante in the industry’s ongoing efforts to protect its content in the face of digital piracy worldwide, on the rise thanks to cheap CD-burning hardware and the popularity of post-Napster file-sharing programs like Morpheus and LimeWire.

BMG’s copy-protection scheme, which will be based on Microsoft’s secure Windows Media file format, prevents would-be music pirates from “ripping” — copying a digital file from the CD into MP3 format on their hard drives, where they could be swapped for free.

Unlike the industry’s earlier attempts at secure-CD technology, BMG claims its discs will be playable on virtually all CD players and in the CD-ROM drives of most Windows-based computers. Users also can upload the tracks onto any portable player that supports the technology.

Use on Macintosh computers will be much more limited, with CDs playing intermittently on Apple’s OS X operating system, and not at all on older formats.

The labels’ first efforts to create protected CDs, including test releases from Universal Music, Warner Music, and BMG’s European unit, generated some harsh criticism and a fair amount of returns due to problems with playback on users’ PCs and even many types of CD players.

Among BMG’s first promo discs to be released with piracy controls under the new plan will be work from rapper Cee-Lo sometime in the next two weeks and a sampler from R&B crooner Donnell Jones later this spring.

BMG chose promotional CDs, which typically go out to journos and retailers a week or two ahead of commercial release, as a way to test the format with a controlled circulation of discs as well as avoid complaints from consumers who paid for the music and demand unfettered access.

The label group, which distributes music from such labels as Arista, RCA, J Records and Jive, also is seeking to protect its new releases from leaking to the public early on file-sharing networks.

Leaks are a major problem for several hit artists, particularly in the urban genre, where acts have been forced to rework their albums after material got out prematurely.

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