Disturbing Trend: Universal’s Digital Watermark

While I am not opposed to copyright owners protecting their works, I am opposed when it does so in an obviously intrusive and destructive manner. Sony’s big fiasco from several years ago was to install a rootkit on a computer, whenever you inserted one of their CDs into your computer’s CD-ROM drive. Universal has something new up its sleeve, and it is in my opinion, even worse.

For over a year now or maybe more, Universal has been watermarking digital downloads. Not only is it audible in lossless downloads, it can even be heard in lossy MP3 downloads, paid downloads through services like Amazon and iTunes, on Internet radio services such as Pandora and Spotify, and even over FM radio when sourced from a digital file. The audibility is such that it is placed right into the most sensitive range of our hearing (1,000 to 3,600 Hz), and that removal of the watermarking within that range will result in further distortion in the altered file. The more technical details can be read elsewhere online, and I will link to them below.

Due to the nature of how it sounds, many have placed the blame for the poor sound on lossy MP3 compression (which is sonically the worst-sounding lossy compression out there). But in the past several months, many have been finding that even lossless files don’t sound quite right. I am currently researching to find out if CDs are affected, as well as the high-quality HDTracks downloads that are growing in popularity.

This blog has samples posted of the watermarking, including a comparison between a watermarked and an unmolested file, and a “difference” file to cancel out the music and demonstrate only the watermarking signal.  It also gives more of a technical explanation of how it works.  The Hydrogenaudio forums has had an ongoing thread about it, and even the EFF has had a say in it.  This is no small issue.

Consumers like us are screwed. A large corporation once against harms the large majority of honest consumers to go after the scant few who pirate the files through illegal downloads. To those of us who value quality sound, it is an insult to us to provide such an obviously defective “product” to us, and have the gall to charge a non-refundable full price for it.

It is further proof of how the industry “experts” who recommended this watermarking are of the same breed who have already run the recording industry into the ground and made the industry what it is today: a shambles. I also feel for those working at the labels, including the artists whose creations are being destroyed by watermarking, who have to live with the fallout.

For now, I do not recommend buying any Universal downloads released from 2012 onward, and I advise questioning the quality of any CD, SACD or HDTracks download until we can verify that these versions are unmolested. If we are expected to pay full price for our purchasing dollars, we demand full quality along with it.

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