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Five Reasons Why Sony Rootkit Is Good For You

The last two weeks have seen almost nonstop reporting about the Sony "rootkit" debacle. If you haven't been following the news, here's what happened: More than 50 music CD titles sold by Sony/BMG secretly install deep into your computer in a hidden way using what Sony calls "cloaking" software, which is designed to prevent unauthorized copying while appearing to just be installing a simple CD player. This trojan horse is a serious violation of user trust and maybe even the law. (Remember, this happens to the people that paid them $15 or more for the CD!) But that's just the beginning of this story. It turns out that the product is riddled with security holes, whereby others could potentially take over the infected computer (this is what's called a "rootkit") and repeated attempts to remedy the situation have just made things worse. You can read the entire saga here, but be forewarned that it's a torturous novel of corporate missteps.

Sneak preview of Oboe

Now, you may be wondering if you misread the title claiming this is "Good For You". Of course Sony's tactics are despicable and if you're one of the estimated 568,200 infected users, you should rightly be unhappy. But instead of piling on to the "Sony is bad" bandwagon, I'd like to look at the positives that will come from this event.

1) Sony breaks their MP3 boycott and sells MP3 files.

In an effort to make amends to affected customers, Sony is offering customers a replacement CD along with MP3 files. As far as I'm aware, this is the first time a major record label is making MP3 files available in conjunction with a CD purchase. All have distributed free tracks in MP3 format before, but none have made MP3 files part of a purchase. It makes NO sense to give away MP3 files, but not sell them. It makes no sense to insist, "We don't sell unencrypted music" all the while selling CDs with the highest quality audio files, which can be converted to MP3s with a single mouse click using software from Apple, Microsoft and others. It makes no financial sense for a company to know that billions of MP3 files are swirling around the Internet each month but refuse to satisfy the demand with an MP3-stocked music store. I hope this is an indication that the music industry's illogical religious boycott of MP3 is ending and being replaced with an economic analysis that will demonstrate that selling MP3s will increase revenues by helping the industry move beyond "every song for 99 cents."

2) Proof positive corporations can't be trusted with control over your computer, your music or your property.

DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) software gives corporations control over the property you pay for AFTER you buy it. That's dangerous because your personal interests and a corporations profit motives will eventually diverge. The hospital will lock you out of your own health records by using DRM to keep your business. Microsoft will use Palladium DRM in their eventually coming future operating system to make sure you have to buy their software.

Sony's actions to secretly install software and cripple your computer to "protect" their music is one of the starkest illustrations to date of the actual harm consumers face in a DRM world. No longer can people say that those who warn of DRM scares are alarmists or conspiracy nuts. The risks are real and Sony drove that point home.

3) Industry officials say that CD buyers have the rights to make copies.

"Even the CDs with content protection allow consumers to burn 3 copies or so for personal use," is a quote from a speech by RIAA President Cary Sherman. Now, I hear you saying, "No duh!" But this is significant because the industry leaders have always been coy or downright reluctant to admit that CD owners can make copies. In a classic standoff, former RIAA leader Hilary Rosen refused to answer questions at a Senate Judiciary Committee I testified at when asked by Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) if consumers had the right to copy their own CDs. If the industry agrees that consumers can make copies, then why not sell them a CD and put some tracks into a music locker for them? I bet consumers would even pay more for this!

4) People care about consumer rights.

A friend of mine from the era, who now runs a company selling DRM technologies, called me up yesterday and said, "This Sony issue has got me thinking that nobody is looking out for the consumer here. I think we need to build a coalition of companies that will defend consumers rights and try to make all these DRM strategies work together." It's terrific that he's finally understanding what I've been talking to him about for 7 years! His approach to start a coalition to bring together all these corporations is a grand but unattainable vision. Apple isn't working with anyone. Microsoft will pretend to work with someone, but ultimately will not. They will gladly sell out the consumer in an attempt to attain a monopoly. The media companies won't play ball either.

The solution isn't some cooked-up "Super DRM," but MP3, which is an open format that all software, hardware and service companies can and do support today. The remedy will come from the marketplace and it's exactly why MP3tunes is doing Oboe! The entire MP3tunes company is working over Thanksgiving break to make it happen soon!

5) Sony ships anti-DRM software.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1998, makes it a crime to produce or disseminate technology that can circumvent copyright security measures. Unbelievably, the software that Sony installs includes DeDRM which makes iTunes songs work on Linux computers. DeDRM was written by new MP3tunes employee Jon Lech Johansen ("DVD Jon"), who was sued twice in Norway for creating circumvention software. Having Sony shipping out hundreds of thousands of discs with DRM-circumvention code will be a good defense for the next person the industry attacks for releasing interoperability software.

-- Michael
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