I hope this is the week that everyone in the world finds out what a root kit is. And I hope it's a week we look back on in amazement, as we consider just how far Sony was willing to go to criminalise consumers in its efforts to preserve control over its product.
Because I believe this is the week that Sony effectively declared war on the consumer, announcing what most of us had already suspected: fair use is a joke in the movie and record industry, and the companies who control mass-market content will truly stop at nothing to protect their profits.
We're not gonna take it
But let me start at the beginning. On Monday, October 31, alert users discovered that Sony BMG is using copy-protected CDs to surreptitiously install its digital rights management technology onto PCs. You don't have to be ripping the CD, either--just playing it from your CD-ROM drive triggers the installation. The software installs itself as a root kit, which is a set of tools commonly used to make certain files and processes undetectable, and they're the favoured tool of crackers who are, as Wikipedia puts it, attempting to "maintain access to a system for malicious purposes." In fact, root kits are often classified alongside Trojan horses. And Mark Russinovich, who created a root-kit detection utility and was one of the first to blog about the Sony intrusion, discovered another little gem when he tried to remove the DRM drivers. It broke his computer--disabling his CD drive.
So, let's make this a bit more explicit. You buy a CD. You put the CD into your PC in order to enjoy your music. Sony grabs this opportunity to sneak into your house like a virus and set up camp, and it leaves the backdoor open so that Sony or any other enterprising intruder can follow and have the run of the place. If you try to kick Sony out, it trashes the place. And what does this software do once it's on your PC? Well, here is (via David Berlind's excellent breakdown of the issue) what Amazon's CD listing page has to say on the subject:
"This product limits your ability to make multiple digital copies of its content, and you will not be able to play this disc or make copies onto devices not listed as compatible. Content/copy protected CDs should allow limited burning, as well as ripping into secure Windows Media Audio formats for playback with most compatible media players and portable devices. In rare cases, these CDs may not be compatible with computer CD-ROM players, DVD players, game consoles, or car CD stereos, and often are not transferable to other formats like MP3."
So it's not just the black hat tactics. The DRM itself is almost unbelievably restrictive, and some have suggested that the reasoning behind it is part of Sony's ongoing war over digital music supremacy with the decidedly more supreme Apple. Here's how Engadget summarises a recent article from Variety: "The new copy protection scheme--which makes it difficult to rip CDs and listen to them with an iPod--is designed to put pressure on Apple to open the iPod to other music services, rather than making it dependent on the iTunes Music Store for downloads." I wish I could say that was a joke, but apparently, it's not. In fact, some of the artists involved didn't give permission to Sony to use the backdoor DRM technology, and in fact, want no part of it. Amazing.
Happily, and despite the use of scary words like root kit, this story hit the Web in a big way. The PR for Sony is, shall we say, not good. By Wednesday, November 2, Sony had announced that it would, in conjunction with the company that developed this bad black hat idea in the first place (First4Internet) release a patch to antivirus companies so that hackers wouldn't, hopefully, be able to take advantage of the backdoor they just opened on your property. So, that solved the most immediate concern, but the only thing the patch does is reveal the antipiracy software. Presumably, you'd suffer the same PC-crippling effects if you tried to remove it, and Sony continues to insist, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, that its components weren't harmful in the first place. As for the insanely draconian copy protection--it's still cheerily intact.
No, we ain't gonna take it
This is an unacceptable development in digital rights enforcement. I don't know how to put this any more clearly. Don't get me wrong--we've long since crossed the line. It's utterly absurd that we accept paying for music that will play on only one or two digital audio players, at best. It's absolutely insane that anyone ever tried to put out a CD that couldn't be ripped to a PC at all. It's a complete joke that we're sitting around anticipating the day when a PVR comes along to tell us when we have to watch a recorded show, and that it will choose when a recorded show might be deleted. I can't even believe mobile phone carriers think it's OK to cripple mobile phone features in order to protect their own moneymaking propositions. And Hollywood's proposed new Analog Hole legislation, which would criminalise nearly every digital video activity you can think of, is another column unto itself, and it's going to be a long one.
But this--using the tactics of criminals to invade our PCs without our knowledge and to expose us to further attack, just so you can keep us from, say, burning a mix CD and giving it to our friends--this is beyond the pale. And as many news sources are beginning to point out, there's some reason to think it might also be illegal, under the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
We're not gonna take it...anymore
Companies: You will never get the increasingly technology-aware, mass media-consuming populace to support your right to copy protection or digital rights management unless they are on your side. And because we are increasingly technology aware, your ever-increasing assault on not only our fair use but also our common sense will virtually guarantee that we use our God-given ingenuity to find a way around whatever bizarre restrictions you see fit to impose. Why? Not because we're dying to break the law, but because you have sold us a crappy product, and, fundamentally, because it is not our responsibility to protect your profits.
What's the solution? In the near term, for us, it's not to buy any Sony CDs, and maybe not any Sony anything. In the longer term, it's to start agitating for a rewrite of copyright law in the manner so eloquently suggested recently by Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. He suggests copyright law with actual teeth that can chomp on massive-scale piracy, but with broad exemptions for personal use, because excessive DRM is hampering innovation and alienating consumers. I couldn't put it any better. And companies? Sony? Are you really going to tell us that overhauling these outmoded rules is harder and more destructive than suing retirees over honest mistakes made by their 12-year-old grandsons? This is the path you're going to choose?
I'm truly sorry that there are, out there in the world, mass-production piracy operations that are digging into your bottom line, but you know what? I'm not one of them. Neither are most of the people who will be labouring under the nasty little flags, Trojan horses, and FairPlay/Plays For Sure doublespeak that you see fit to slap on the stuff we legitimately purchased.
And you know who's not going to labour under those restrictions? You know who's not even going to notice? The mass-production piracy operations, that's who. You know it, and I know it. So why are you engaged in this nickel-and-dime, small-time thrust-and-parry with me and my friends? Trust me, you're not going to make back the money by dropping viruses onto my PC, because my almighty dollar and I are going elsewhere--and you're probably not going to like where I end up.
Technology will march on. Technology is the reason we're in this fix in the first place, and technology will keep on giving us solutions to whatever irritating, invasive, and insulting roadblocks you keep throwing in our path. And damned if we and our almighty dollars, no matter how long it takes, don't eventually win these little wars.