seriously DisRespecting Music-buyers

If you have been following the news on the Internet at all in recent weeks, you must have heard about Sony’s DRM disaster: in an attempt to prevent copying of music audio CDs, Sony put copy protection software called XCP for “Extended Copy Protection” on some 4 million CDs. of which about 2.1 million have been sold. In order to listen to the CD on a Windows PC, this software has to be installed on the PC, preventing the user from making more than three copies of the CD, but also making it impossible to listen to the CD with other jukebox applications like iTunes or WinAmp.

Much worse, though, sysinternals.com’s Mark Russinovich discovered that the software is based on a so-called rootkit, a piece of software that is used by malware developers to get control over a computer. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long until some exploits appeared for the security holes in this rootkit. After a wave of consumer outrage swept the Internet, Sony provided a software patch that was supposed to remove the rootkit. Too bad it also broke Windows completely on some people’s machines. By now, Sony has promised to take the “infected” CDs off store shelves and to also take back CDs already purchased. Unfortunately for Sony, this move did not prevent some people from taking Sony to court over this, claiming — rightfully, might I add — that installing a rootkit on a user’s computer may amount to computer sabotage. For the full story, head on over to Mark’s original article and follow the respective links to the follow-up postings.

Thank you, Sony Music!

Being a computer junkie myself, I feel for those people who had their Windows machines completely messed up by XCP while all they wanted to do was listen to a music CD they had bought. Nonetheless, I am deeply thankful to Sony Music. Deeply thankful for demonstrating just how far a media company is willing to go in trying to protect their intellectual property. Deeply thankful, also, for demonstrating a disturbing lack of judgment about the consequences of deploying such brute-force Digital Rights Management systems. Deeply thankful, finally, for demonstrating a truly naive grasp of the presumed effectiveness of this approach.

You see, there’s a reason why I have explicitly mentioned Windows computers above: it’s because, apparently, the CDs play just fine on Macs and Linux, i.e., if you want to break the whole damn “protection” scheme, just use a Mac or a Linux machine, et voila!, there’s your CD basically as unprotected as ever.

Let’s chew through that again: Sony uses malware tactics that pose a serious security threat to the customers’ PCs without expressly saying so (never mind the minor note in the EULA — no-one in his right mind reads through all that legalese anyway!), potentially breaks the whole operating system installation if you attempt to remove it, and all it takes to make a copy is to shove that exact same CD into a box running OS X or Linux. What have they been smoking at Sony Music?

It’s blatantly obvious that Sony has gone way overboard with their DRM-strategy in this specific case, but it’s yet another example for pointing out just what the key issue with DRM is: it’s the honest customer who’s screwed, the honest guy or gal who will have to deal with a messed up computer, while a potential “pirate” can easily copy the music on a non-Windows computer. Although not as dramatic as with XCP, it’s the same thing with other DRM measures.

Take the region code on DVDs, for instance: why can’t I play a DVD I honestly bought in the US on my DVD player here in Europe? Oh, wait, I can: I just need to buy another DVD player with the US region code. Or find new region-code-less firmware for my computer’s DVD drive. Then I could watch the DVD legally. What really makes me feel like an “honest idiot,” however, is the fact that some of my friends who just don’t bother with buying any DVD just slide a pirated, region-code-less copy into their player and are not restricted in their technical use of the media at all.

Technological progress makes it even more obvious just how restrictive DRM can be: with multi-GByte hard drives available at more than reasonable prices and exciting rumors about an upcoming Mac mini with TiVo-like features, wouldn’t it be grand if I could just copy all my DVDs to such a computer’s hard drive and never worry about handling those DVDs again, just like I do with my (un-DRM’ed) music CDs? Oops, CSS won’t let me do that, even though I would be watching the DVD’s contents on the exact same “licensed” technical device…

Show us some respect!

Here’s another point of view: according to Jupiter Research’s “European Music Consumer Survey,” 34% of 15-24 year olds prefer using file sharing services to get their music instead of buying CDs. After reading this report, the media industry execs should ask themselves a few questions:

  1. If one third of all music consumers of that age group can obtain their music without paying for it, doesn’t that mean that DRM in general has failed miserably at protecting your intellectual property?
  2. If these kids pay ridiculous prices to get one of those dreaded ring tones onto their mobiles, doesn’t that mean that they will pay for music if it is presented in a way they value it?
  3. Isn’t it about time you treated your honest customers to some additional benefits instead of screwing them by ever more restrictive DRM mechanisms?!

If you avoid these questions, you will simply lose ever more business from those who are (still) willing to pay for their media. Don’t believe me? Read this, then.

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