Sony Stirs Controversy With Hidden DRM Software

Digital rights management (DRM) software embedded in some Sony BMG CDs has become a lightning rod for complaints against the measures the music industry is taking to prevent illegal copying.

Eight months after Sony incorporated the software into 20 of its CD releases, developer and author Mark Russinovich wrote in his blog that the CDs, when played on a PC, install DRM software from First 4 Internet that hides itself on the PC’s hard drive. Sony has since released a patch that unveils the software, but uninstalling it completely requires the consumer to contact Sony customer service.

Security analysts have said that virus writers could use the software, masked by rootkit technology, to sneak in malware that would also be hidden, and a recent report indicated that the first of these has been spotted.

Alienating Consumers

Analysts agree the controversy will only fuel consumer animosity toward copy protection.

“Sony’s deployment of DRM that uses rootkit technology adds insult to the perceived injury of DRM,” Susan Kevorkian, senior analyst of consumer markets for IDC, told TechNewsWorld. “Consumers are already at best confused by, and at worst alienated by, content protection technology that limits the utility of their entertainment media.”

Mark Mulligan, senior analyst with Jupiter Media, agreed.

“Consumers don’t need to understand the intricacies of the technology to understand and oppose the overall concept,” he said. “In a world where the industry is trying to compete against free, this simply makes the illegal, free — and therefore DRM-free — content all the more compelling.”

Forget the iPod

Another huge downside to the DRM software is that it requires the use of Windows Media Player and is not compatible with iPods, by far the most popular portable music players on the market. That alone will not play well with consumers, Kevorkian points out.

Mulligan brings up future compatibility problems:

“What happens when operating systems are upgraded and potentially make these CDs unplayable? Will Sony BMG offer free upgraded versions of the CD album plus free tech support to remedy any system problems caused in an OS upgrade? I doubt it, somehow, despite full culpability,” he said. He argues that the best DRM solution is no DRM.

“There simply isn’t a compelling business or technology case for CD copy protection. It doesn’t prevent music getting on P2P networks. It only takes one copy to get on the networks for it to have potentially global reach, and that only requires one CD burn and rip,” he said. “If this [security measure] is intended to prevent people making more than three copies, well, just how many consumers actually do that? This is a case of alienating the majority of music fans and penalizing them for the actions of a minority.”

Kevorkian, however, believes that copy protection is here to stay.

“Long-term, it is likely that new CDs from the major labels will be content-protected, pending development of more palatable technology,” she said.

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