UMG Watermarks Audiophile Files, Pisses Off Paying Customers

from the hisssssssssssssssss dept

Let’s say, just for analogy’s sake, you had a defense contractor that supplied weapons and ammunition to Earth’s army. Let’s say that army was going to war with the evil pod people from the planet Dah-Rull. And let’s say that this defense contractor, named Universal Munitions Group, supplied the good guys with new bullet rounds that they promised would completely obliterate the Dah-Rull pod people and make everyone on Earth happy again.

Now let’s say that when Earth’s army confronted their enemy and fired their weapons…the bullets, instead of firing, simply blew up, taking the limbs of Earth’s infantry with them. As a result, the pod people were free to take over the world. You’d be pretty pissed, wouldn’t you? Unless you’re a pod-person, I mean?

Yet that’s about how effective Universal Music Group’s latest attempt at watermarking is. You can read the fascinating exchange on the message board of, but here’s the skinny. A customer of Passionato, a site dedicated to bringing audiophiles high quality recordings of classical music, notices that he was getting an odd thrumming noise on his FLAC file of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony that he got from Passionato (the file was advertised as lossless), a noise that wasn’t present on the file he got directly from UMG. There’s some back and forth between helpful board members about some technical issues that could have been the problem, but eventually, after multiple users go and test files similarly, they arrive at the conclusion that it must be watermarking. It culminates with someone from Passionato showing up and indicating that the file received was faithfully translated from whatever UMG supplied the site, meaning that any sound artifacts would have been the result of UMG’s file, not a technical issue resulting from compression or file extension switches. Basically, UMG watermarked files being distributed through their partners. Files which are being advertised as lossless recordings for audiophiles.

A couple of things were clear in that board exchange:

First, nice try, UMG, but this isn’t going to accomplish what you want it to. You’re talking about a dedicated group of audiophiles here. There were all manner of suggestions for nixing the watermarking, from pirating an un-watermarked file (keeping in mind that it was already purchased in what was supposed to be lossless format), to doing a cut and paste remixing of the file from a clean one to cut out the artifact. Either way, it can be done away with.

Second, these are your damned customers! Seriously, as ridiculous as my opening analogy was, this is equally stupid. Your watermarking is only pissing off paying customers. Now they have to, in addition to… you know… giving you money, go around and figure out a way to fix what you screwed up for them. And that’s going to make them buy from you in the future? And that did what exactly to keep the files from being pirated elsewhere?

I can’t believe I have to say this to an established company, but: UMG, customers are people, too. Stop screwing with people and sell the product as advertised, or you’ll find you’ll have no more customers left to piss off.

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Companies: universal music

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Comments on “UMG Watermarks Audiophile Files, Pisses Off Paying Customers”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

But we had to do this!
Piracy will destroy us, we have to actively drive our customers to piracy so that we can claim everyone is a dirty pirate!

We have no idea how to do anything for our customers, we just want them to all pirate everything so we can send out letters demanding to be paid for the infringement, its working for the other guys.

hobo says:

Re: Re:

They actually might be onto something. If the big music companies drive all of their former customers to piracy, then they can go to Congress and honestly (for once) say that everyone is a “pirate,” and Congress will crack down in their favor.

It’s definitely a long-game plan, but it’s not bad.

Loki says:

Re: Re:

Unfortunately for them, not everyone pirates. For about 15 years (85-01) I bought, on average, about 100 albums a year. Most of them were major label albums. I pretty much stopped buying music from late ’01 until about late ’06 (first for financial reasons, then as a general boycott of the music industry). Since ’06 I’ve bought maybe 500 albums. Again about 100 albums a year on average, except this time there are two main differences:

1) Most of the albums are digital. It’s so much easier to carry around a 30G mp3 player with 8,000 songs on it then several large cases with 800 CDs.

2) Of the roughly 500 albums I’ve purchased over the past 5 years, almost none of them are major label/RIAA affiliated labels (and the few that are, are purchased on CD – one of the very few reasons I buy CDs anymore – from second hand stores/garage sales – at least until the major labels come up with some way to get a kickback from those outlets as well).

The simple fact is I don’t need the major labels, nor do I have a strong desire to actively support bands who still insist on signing with major labels. Before I had to let my eMusic subscription lapse a few years ago, I had over 100 non-major label albums saved for future downloads (although now that the majors have their stuff plastered all over eMusic, it is doubtful I’ll go back). There is a LOT of good music out there without need for the major labels if one can find it (which is why the labels fight so hard against new technology).

SO the labels can try all the fancy trickery they want, they still aren’t getting any money out of me (and with somewhere near 1,000+ albums and like 20,000 songs I’m not in any pressing need to buy more music should the majors talk some/most/all of the smaller labels to jump on their bandwagon).

Scooters (profile) says:

What about point #3?

The fact this is not a copyrightable sound file, which means “watermarking” the file is questionable to begin with, let alone the rest of the points.

Then again, given this industry hasn’t received any purchases from me, what the hell do I care what they do with their products.

As for everyone else… well, let’s just say some are a tad slower at learning their lessons.

Now, I’m changing the topic and will continue to do so until Techdirt “listens”.

I’m perfectly fine with a site trying its best to reach out to its customers by offering them value-add, but there’s a fine line between a reasonable offering and “Shoved in your face without any regard to how people will feel”.

I speak of this “If you liked this…” option, now taking up space in comment replies with no option to disable it.

The little icons were easy to remove: adblock. But this isn’t something one can block.

Is there a particular reason why this option is being forced? It’s another example of content owners believing everyone wants this, whether they like it or not.

What’s next, Techdirt. A rootkit install?

Please consider these options before just shoving them down the virtual throats of customers.

It’s a guaranteed way of losing them, or does TD writers not read what they post?

Thanks for reading.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: What about point #3?

…and give us our “Previous”, “Next” links back at the bottom of the page as well. Very annoying having to scroll all the way back up after reading comments to get the next article. =(

Umm. There are links to the previous and next articles on the bottom of my page. But, I agree that the “If you like this..” box is a bit annoying. It was better over in the right hand column.

Chuck Norris' Enemy (deceased) (profile) says:

Re: What about point #3?

The fact this is not a copyrightable sound file, which means “watermarking” the file is questionable to begin with, let alone the rest of the points.

I think you mean the song isn’t copyrightable because the music has fallen into the public domain. But the recording could still be under copyright since the performance was most likely more recent, you know, when we have the technology to record sounds. With the current system, the copyright on the recording could last forever.

taoareyou (profile) says:

Re: What about point #3?

Wow, so the site adds a small box at the end of posts that contain links to other related posts that some people might find interesting and you liken that to a step towards a rootkit?

If a small box like that before the comments annoys you so much that you would consider not reading the blog, you might want to consider the problem being more localized. 🙂

Seriously, is it so horribly difficult to flick the scroll wheel a fraction more to get to the comments? lol

rstr5105 (profile) says:

You Know....

There are very very few cases in which I’ll condone downright piracy…(That is, piracy in which the person has no desire to properly acquire that which they are pirating)…

But when a company does something like this…to a song that SHOULD be in the public domain…The only thing I can say is fly that Jolly Roger high and proud my friend.

pixelpusher220 (profile) says:

Re: You Know....

Given the quality demanded by this select group of customers, it makes sense that even public domain content could be sold. They are providing the high quality conversion and production of these files.

The ‘quality’ makes most music pale in comparison so there’s definite value being added here.

That said, this is less a copyright issue than outright fraud. They sold something but then didn’t provide that something without modifying it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: An execs view?

Wrong, the file lost information.

There is a fixed amount of information in the file (it is a FLAC, so it decompresses to a fixed amount of bits per sample and a fixed amount of samples per second). This information is signal plus noise.

By increasing the amount of noise, they are unavoidably decreasing the amount of signal, for the same fixed amount of information. And it is the signal that the audiophiles want.

alex (profile) says:

This is confusing...

I understand the point of watermarking files and I know that some download stores do it. The thing I don’t get is why UMG would watermark a file they pass on to a download store.

If UMG later find the track on a torrent, and read the watermark which tells them the file was from passionato, what does that give them? They still don’t know who shared it, only via what channel it was shared.

Very odd.

ps. lol @ your analogy =]

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: This is confusing...

“If UMG later find the track on a torrent, and read the watermark which tells them the file was from passionato, what does that give them? They still don’t know who shared it, only via what channel it was shared.”

I can think of two reasons. One, it’s the constant push to blame the middle man with more money (Why sue the end user with little money when you can sue the middle man with lots). Two, they want to give lower quality items to the middle man to push people to buy directly from UMG (no sharing profit). Both of these ideas are supported by the fact that the “flutter” isn’t present in the UMG version.

alex (profile) says:

Re: Re: This is confusing...

hmm.. i’d guess they’re fully aware they can’t sue a store whose customer has shared a track. I’m also pretty sure they wouldn’t be watermarking to degrade the quality of the file. One of the most important features of a watermark is that it needs to be inaudible (this one was obviously noticed as it’s in a piece of subtle music being listened to by an audiophile – most likely on a high-end stereo)

My guess is that they just want to track which channels their files leak from.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This is confusing...

Well based on their current court cases, they don’t seem to think they NEED to show that anyone shared the file, only that ‘OMG PIRACY’ happened.

I’m sure that eventually we will see UMG suing their ‘partners’ when customers ‘leak’ or ‘share’ downloads from their stores.

You know when Joe Blow Audiophile BUYS and downloads music from one of UMG partners, then passes the file around to 5-10 of his Audiophile buddies asking, “Hey do you guys hear some strange ‘humming’ noises in this supposedly ‘lossless’ recording I purchased from Store x”? Now UMG can sue Joe Blow and his buddies as the ‘OMG PIRATES’ that they are……

Sure I’m cynical, I work in government, what do you expect? If you are a sane rational person, you either go all cynical or you go nuts trying to rationalize the cognitive dissonance you hear on a daily basis (if you’re a politician, then you fit right in… yes I just implied that politicians are not sane rational people, show me some proof and I may change my mind)….

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

UMG’s damned customers, as you call them, are NOT going to put the watermarked files on a torrent site. Instead, they will put clean uncorrupted versions on a torrent site.

So what exactly was the point of the watermarking again?

Oh, yeah. To drive people to piracy and away from paying.

It is difficult to believe it, but they really are that stupid.

They sold an uncorrupted file, people were buying it. Sure some would pirate, but others would purchase — and were. Now nobody will buy.

If you sell at a reasonable price, most people would prefer to pay.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“damned” was Mike’s words, not mine.

If they are willing to rip off the watermarks, they aren’t really customers, just conduits between the paid world and the free world. One sale made, and how many free copies given away?

If those are the prized customers, they aren’t much of a prize.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

You just took the funny away…now it’s just sad…

Are you seriously saying that people who paid premium money for lossless (notice that important detail) quality are the bad guys, just because they removed the watermark? They PAID (extra money, I assume) for the lossless quality.

What happened here is pure FRAUD from whoever sold them the files (or from someone upstream?). And you have the nerve to call the costumers (you know, the people that actually paid, and were probably willing to continue to pay for the files) pirates?

You => Sad example of a human being…

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

It’s amazing, actually, but that IS how they appear to think. It’s a victim’s complex, where everyone is out to get you, especially those evil people telling you how much they love your recordings and handing over their money to you. Those people are the worst….

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a Chicago Comic Con I’m getting ready for. Can you believe it? Freaking kids from the original Charlie and the Chocolate Family are gonna be there!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

You said: “Are you seriously saying that people who paid premium money for lossless (notice that important detail) quality are the bad guys, just because they removed the watermark?”

Me: nope, they aren’t bad guys for removing the watermark. In fact, they can remove anything they want, they paid for it. More power to them.

They are, however, bad guys if they remove the watermark because they want to pirate it, and seed it for hundreds of other people who aren’t going to pay.

I know the difference is subtle (as a hand grenade) but I think you might be able to understand it.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

You said: “If they are willing to rip off the watermarks, they aren’t really customers, just conduits between the paid world and the free world.”

Don’t try to back out on it now. You CLEARLY said that simply removing a watermark makes you a pirate. Nice waffling – you’ve shown your true colours.

The people in this article specifically said they were removing the watermark in order to get the product they paid for, not for the sake of piracy. You said they “weren’t really customers”

You are such a joke. You can’t even keep your own bullshit straight.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Re:

Umm, the whole reason this started was that the watermarks were clearly audible on the tracks.

Do you not understand what kind of watermark we are talking about, perhaps? This isn’t file metadata – it is an actual sonic watermark that lowers the quality of the recording.

So do you still content that the only reason to take it off is to “hide”?

Or are you ready to admit you were wrong?

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Actually, it was Tim’s words.

Now, can you explain how ripping off watermarks makes them a “conduit” to the “free world”? I’m not sure if you’re just confused about the technology, but watermarks are not an actual protective DRM mechanism, they just allow UMG to slightly narrow down the source of a pirated file (though I’m not sure what they accomplish by doing so). Meanwhile, they reduce the value of the product – they may not be that noticeable in a heavily-produced pop song, but they sure as hell ruin an orchestra.

In fact, that’s a great idea. Live symphonies should have a guy stand in the back playing a steady didgeridoo note, in case anyone makes a bootleg recording. The audience surely wouldn’t mind!

Alien Bard says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

That’s a bit over idealistic.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have one hundred high paying sweaty customers then just a single freshly showered but cheap customer. The store might not smell as pure but I could afford lots of air freshener with the extra profits.

The above is especially true if I’m selling soap!

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

> If they are willing to rip off the watermarks,
> they aren’t really customers,

They ARE really customers, who already paid, and just wanted good quality sound.

> just conduits between the paid world and the free world.

Someone out there might be. But it only takes one. The rest of your customers are not that conduit. But you seem to see everyone as the pirate.

Find the guy who put it out there and prosecute him. Oh, but it’s easier to go after Google or a page that links to a site that links to a site that has downloads. Because it’s easier to get someone not actually infringing (because they’re not trying to hide) we’ll hear of great victories of extraditing someone for doing something perfectly legal in his own country.

If you believe watermarks are necessary, then find a way to watermark that doesn’t damage sound quality. If, as you say, someone will remove the watermarks, then you are admitting that they are ineffective while simultaneously damaging sound quality — which is bad for paying customers and good for pirates.

Hint: focus your efforts on something that is GOOD for customers (you know, those people who PAY), and BAD for pirates, not vice versa.

Jay (profile) says:

Mike, you don’t get it. You never will. It’s not about how much they pay. But then you freetards always think the problem is getting something for free. That band doesn’t get paid if UMG doesn’t protect their property. They don’t get anything if someone copies the file!

People are getting paid less and less because of piracy and you didn’t even put that into the article? I call shenanigans! I just created some new songs and they haven’t gotten popular yet and it’s due to piracy!

So you can say all you want that UMG has problems, they aren’t the ones that do. It’s you all!


gorehound (profile) says:

Selling lossless files to audiophiles ( and i am an audiophile) is just plain wrong.I work with Audio as a freelance artist and have a setup which is worth around $6000.
I also have very good non-damaged ears and they are important to me.i hear sounds many don’t hear.I use CEDAR AUDIO Hardware/Software to do serious Audio Restoration Jobs.

Watermarking lossless files makes them not a true reprsentation of the Audio you purchase.If possible a lawsuit should be done against this and could be won.These people will have the Stereo setups comparible to mine and the ears that are great and they expect the best.
Instead they get audible audio artifacts courtesy of the company who claimed to sell them unadultered lossless music.
Yes I would talk to some lawyer friends and try to bring a lawsuit against these assholes.

Lord Binky says:

Piracy + Paid = SUPER PRODUCT

Well, if it wasn’t already supposed to be lossless.. But still, why is it the best product is made by combining what the pirates release openly and the paid product from a company. Granted the pirated product is typically more valuable to the user since restrictions that were unnecessarily placed on the product are removed. [sarcasm] I can?t blame companies for not understanding that, it really is counter-intuitive. [/sarcasm]

Mr. Smarta** says:

I isolated the sound

I managed to get ahold of one of the songs and ran it through a ID-10-T Spectrum 400k4m Analyzer, cutting out the primary tracks and cutting down the supposed ‘humming’. When isolated and played back and 15x normal speed, the watermark sound is obvious.

It’s a chorus of redneck belching recorded while they were all drinking Schlitz beer.

Heck of a watermark. Guess UMG really wants to screw up the music so nobody can enjoy it.

ECA (profile) says:

I have to ask, for all our sakes

How much does water marking and drm cost?
I understand that after the application, its part of the virtual product.. but what is the cost? And if a DRM is added, dont they charge per disk on sales?

NOW I have to say, that I search for free music…Like..

Has some great stuff, but you have to wade thru it all to find what you want. The problem is there is not 1 resource for PUBLIC DOMAIN or TRULY free music.
The music industry ISNT going to set up a site. And they PROBABLY dont want you to know its there..

charliebrown (profile) says:

Aussies who rented videos in the mid 1990's will get it


Have you ever bought a CD that wasn’t quite right? It may have been mastered with excessive loudness, giving frequently inferior sound quality for which you paid good money.

Excessively loud CD’s are recognisable by bearing the labels of Sony Music’s ear bleeding logo, or Universal’s worlwide earthquake, or even EMI making Every Mistake Imaginable.

Excessively loud CD’s rob listeners and artists of their rightful sound and add to the pain you’re feeling in your ears. Loud and distorted CD’s are a major problem worlwide. Please help us stop them. If you buy a CD that has been dynamically compressed to the Nth degree to sound insanely loud, send it back to the label, along with a very detailed letter explaining why.

This message is brought to you by somebody who has had their ears shredded one too many times.

To get the joke, watch this
If you fast-forward it, though, you’ll still get a message =)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Aussies who rented videos in the mid 1990's will get it

I also hate excessively compressed, loud recordings. However, any mastering engineer will tell you that it’s generally the artists themselves who make the request for the master to be “as hot and loud as possible.” I’m sure that labels are sometimes responsible, but for the most part it’s the artist’s decision (who is trying to impress a major label or compete with radio hits, perhaps).

A musician has to pass on a bit of musical input to the mastering engineer, the label doesn’t really have that much input to the process. Typical questions from a ME like “is the guitar supposed to be so bright?” or “are the vocals supposed to be so buried?” or “there are problems with the zero-point crossings, is that on purpose?” wouldn’t be the kinds of questions a label would be able to answer.

A label might ask for a too-quiet recording to be remastered, or they might request something like a “vocal-up mix”, but even then it’s the artist/producer who sits down with the ME to make the adjustments. Labels will exert some influence over the process, which mostly boils down to admonishing the artist to write a single, but for the most part they’re not in the studio making comments about where to pan the bongos or bitching about audible click-tracks.

Galashiels (profile) says:

Good Customer Relations

If the purpose of the watermarking was to reduce piracy, then you could argue that it may have seemed an effective deterrent. However, these weren’t files released to individuals who subsequently tried to pirate them. No: They were provided to an authorised agency dealing with paying customers!

Audiophiles, as with any eclectic bunch of hardcore users interested in a particular pastime, will most likely up sticks, & move to another service. If the only viable service around is untouched (or remastered) pirate copies, ergo, well….you know the rest.

Why is it, that time & time again, these major companies keep shooting themselves in the foot. Or, as a nod to the original analogy, keep blowing themselves up, taking the limbs with them.


That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

So they are actively hurting their business.

Because quite honestly even if one could get “clean” files from UMG, after getting a file they purposely screwed up to give to the resellers, why would I have any faith in them not screwing up more just because I bought from them?

Some exec somewhere decided they weren’t making enough money on their contracts with the resellers, they have invested in this spiffy watermarking program (that is heavy handed and distorts the music)… you put 2 and 2 together and your getting 5!

While this is just a small niche market, I hope the resellers sue UMG. I hope the fans boycott UMG. I hope they make enough noise that even a record exec figures out that doing this is a bad idea.

Because if this went unchallenged, how long until they manage to create a crappy iTunes knock off for the labels, and just “watermark” the files supplied to Apple or the other retailers…

martin says:

Watermarked UMG tracks

UMG have updated their library to remove all watermarks which started at the end of 2018 watermarked tracks still exist in digital stores/tidal (a good example is "cry to heaven – Elton John" if you listen on tidal (or spotify) which hasn’t been updated yet you can clearly hear the watermark at the beginning it sounds like a warble effect added to the track

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