Hidden DRM code's legitimacy questioned

When bad software happens to good people

"Not only had Sony put software on my system that uses techniques commonly used by malware to mask its presence, the software is poorly written and provides no means for uninstall," he wrote after describing his investigation. "Worse, most users that stumble across the cloaked files with a (rootkit detector) scan will cripple their computer if they attempt the obvious step of deleting the cloaked files. While I believe in the media industry’s right to use copy protection mechanisms to prevent illegal copying, I don’t think that we’ve found the right balance of fair use and copy protection, yet."

However, the surreptitious software has had a broad effect. The content protection scheme has been included with tens of thousands of CDs. Using Google, a search of Amazon.com for "CONTENT/COPY-PROTECTED CD"--the site's label for music CDs that include the First 4 Internet or similar protections--turns up 32,800 hits.

Consumers that have encountered the digital-content protection technologies have railed against the record companies. The comments on Amazon.com for the Van Zant disc bought by F-Secure to investigate the problem are almost entirely made up of complaints regarding the disk's copy protection and not reviews of the content of the CD. One reviewer complained that the copy protection breaks any backwards compatibility with older CD players and CD-ROM drives.

"All of this was bad enough but this new method takes the copy protection madness to a whole new level," wrote the reviewer. "You'd never pay anyone to install malware on your computer system, would you? But that's exactly what happens when you buy this CD."

One blogger described his frustration, but ultimate success, in getting music from a protected CD ripped into his iTunes library. Record label ATO has disavowed the copy protection placed on its CDs by Sony BMG in a press statement.

"Neither we nor our artists ever gave permission for the use of this technology, nor is it our distributor's opinion that they need our permission," the company said. "Wherever it is our decision, we will forego use of copy-protection, just as we have in the past." Perhaps the strongest condemnation for the technology is that it punishes the wrong people, F-Secure's Hyppönen said.

"In some way, I can understand why they are doing this - to protect their content and make sure their content protection system does not get hacked," he said. "But you are only alienating your buying customers - the people that are illegally downloading the music are not affected." In the end, that may be the technology's worst limitation.

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