PC manufacturer Gateway is responding to attempts by major record labels to prevent CDs being played on computers.

Apple is watching developments closely, aware that a clampdown may effect sales of its iPod digital-music player. The latest 10GB model can store up to 2,000 MP3s – the source of which for many users will be commercially bought CDs

Record labels are experimenting with security protection that prevents legally purchased CDs being played on computer CD players. Consumer groups complain the move limits consumers free use of their purchases.

But Gateway has now launched a counter-campaign, to support consumers' digital-music rights.

The campaign features US TV commercials and a promotion in which the company will give away three free blank CDs to consumers. The company is also hosting digital-music clinics at its US retail outlets.

A specific target of the company's actions is legislation recently introduced to the US by Senator Fritz Hollings. If adopted, this would outlaw converting a legally acquired CD to MP3 format for use in a portable player, or burning a back-up copy of a legally purchased CD.

Music labels defend the practice, complaining that music sales are down 10 per cent because of music pirates and the Internet. “Virtually every other media product, including movies, video games, e-books, and software, has copy protection,” claims Jonathan Lamy, Recording Industry of America (RIAA) spokesman. "Why should music be any different?"

Gateway CEO Ted Waitt said: “Gateway is advocating consumers' right to use existing technology in ways that respect copyrights while allowing them to discover new artists and enjoy the added flexibility of digital media formats.”

US lawyers are also gearing-up to act against the labels over the issue. Attorneys from the Pennsylvania law firm Feldman & Rifkin and the California law firm Kaplan, Fox & Kilsheimer are collecting complaints from music fans who believe the music CDs they bought are copy-protected without adequate labelling. They plan on filing class actions against the labels.