Texas puts Sony BMG in its sights

'Illegal spyware'

Two Princeton University computer scientists said that the way Sony BMG and copy-protection provider First 4 Internet remove the XCP software - using an Active X control - leaves PCs open to attack by malicious Web sites.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) added to its list of complaints the MediaMax copy protection software produced by digital-rights provider SunnComm. That company protects the lion's share of Sony BMG's titles with about 20 million discs bearing SunnComm's digital-rights management code.

"Consumers have a right to listen to the music they have purchased in private, without record companies spying on their listening habits with surreptitiously-installed programs," Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney with the EFF, said in a statement. "Between the privacy invasions and computer security issues inherent in these technologies, companies should consider whether the damage done to consumer trust and their own public image is worth its scant protection."

The intense pressure from consumers and security experts had Sony BMG reversing its course last week. The company ceased to manufacture the CDs that included the troublesome technology, planned to release a secure removal tool, and instituted a buy-back program.

"We share the concerns of consumers regarding discs with XCP content-protected software, and, for this reason, we are instituting a consumer exchange program and removing all unsold CDs with this software from retail outlets," Sony BMG said in a statement published last week.

With more law firms filing complaints against Sony BMG, recalling its CDs will likely not get the media giant out of legal hot water.

The Texas Attorney General's lawsuit focuses on classifying Sony BMG's copy protection as spyware, because it secretly installs itself and is difficult to remove. Moreover, because the software remains hidden and active after installation, the Attorney General charges that it goes beyond the function of copy protection.

The whole incident is unfortunate, analysts Martin Reynolds and Mike McGuire of business research firm Gartner wrote in brief on Friday (PDF), because the copy-protection software does not prevent most copy programs from duplicating discs. Moreover, a fingernail-sized piece of tape can render the track containing the software from executing, defeating the copy protection.

"Sony BMG's ... technology will prevent neither informed casual copiers nor high-volume 'pirates' from doing whatever they like with the content of the disc," the analysts wrote. "Sony BMG has created serious public-relations and legal issues for itself, and for no good reason."

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