The Sony BMG Rootkit Fiasco

When Mark Russinovich posted "Sony, Rootkits and Digital Rights Management Gone Too Far," he helped trigged a firestorm of subsequent criticism about Sony BMG Music Entertainment’s use of the First4Internet’s digital rights protection software on some of its music CDs. It was bad enough that one of the planet’s largest entertainment companies was perceived as hacking users’ computers with "rootkits" in the name of copy protection, but then the EFF posted an analysis of the license agreement associated with the CDs (see "Now the Legalese Rootkit: Sony-BMG’s EULA"). Things got worse when real hackers started exploiting the DRM software (see "First Trojan Using Sony DRM Spotted"). Then the question posed by the EFF’s "Are You Infected by Sony-BMG’s Rootkit?" posting became a bit more urgent. And the lawsuits started (see "Sony Sued For Rootkit Copy Protection"). Sony BMG suspended production (see "Sony Halts Production of ‘Rootkit’ CDs"), but said it would continue using DRM software from SunnComm (see "Sony Shipping Spyware from SunnComm, Too"). Among others, Microsoft said it will try to eradicate the hard-to-kill DRM software (see "Microsoft Will Wipe Sony’s ‘Rootkit’").

What would drive Sony BMG to such a course of action? Blame that slippery new genie, digital media, which seems to want information to not only be free, but infinitely mutable into new works as well. Once it’s granted a few wishes, it’s hard to get it back in the bottle, and the one wish it won’t grant is that the bottle had never been opened in the first place.

Faced with rampant file sharing that is based on CDs, music companies now want to nip the rip in the bud: put DRM software on customers’ PCs that will control how they use a CD’s digital tracks. Of course, it would be better from their perspective if such controls were built in to the operating system, but, if not, a little deep digital surgery can add lacking functionality.

The potential result for consumers is multiple DRM modifications to their PCs that may conflict with each other, open security holes, deny legitimate use, and have other negative side effects.

In the hullabaloo over the technical aspects of the Sony BMG DRM fiasco, it’s important not to lose sight of this: your CD is now licensed. First sale rights are gone, fair use is gone, and the license reigns supreme.

Pity the poor music librarian, who was already struggling to figure out how to deal with digital audio reserves. Between DRM-protected tracks from services such as iTunes and DRM-protected CDs that modify their PCs, they "live in interesting times."

While the Sony BMG fiasco has certain serio-comic aspects to it, rest assured that music (and other entertainment companies) will eventually iron out the most obvious kinks in the context of operating systems that are designed for intrinsic DRM support and, after some bumps in the road, a new era of DRM-protected digital multimedia will dawn.

That is, it will dawn unless musicians, other digital media creators, and consumers do something about it first.


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