Spoutin' Off: Sony gives ground on spyware discs

By Michael Rau

November 28 2005

Our last column (http://dailypress.asoundidea.com/Columns/111405.html) on Sony/BMG's XCP-protected (or infected, depending on your point of view) CDs sparked a firestorm, so we're going to spend another column on Digital Rights Management, or DRM.

First, a quick update: Since the last column, Sony/BMG has eaten crow. It was a little slow on the uptake, but it eventually realized that even if it couldn't understand why, the invasion of personal computers by its software outraged the wired world.

In response, Sony/BMG issued a recall of XCP-protected discs and has promised to replace those purchased with XCP-free products. They also posted a list of CDs released with XCP. It turns out that rather than the 19 titles I mentioned before, there are actually more than 50. The list can be found here: http://cp.sonybmg.com/xcp/english/titles.html.

In addition, Texas and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have filed suit against Sony/BMG, accusing it of violating various laws governing spyware.

A couple of the letters that I received castigated me for being critical of the various clumsy attempts by these huge corporations to protect their products from people distributing music and video illegally.

My contention is that the dictatorial behavior of these corporations is largely responsible for the rise of illegal file sharing.

I could write a book on the music industry and the manner in which it exerts control over artists and venues, but the bottom line is that consumers began feeling more and more cheated.

The one area that contributed the most to this was the quality of product. Consumers were being forced to buy grossly overpriced products to acquire one or two songs that they liked out of 10 or 12 on the CD.

Savvy computer users, knowing that a cut on a CD was essentially just a digital file, began sharing just the cuts that they liked among themselves. The desire to find these individual cuts led to the creation of file-sharing programs, beginning with Napster in 1999. It evolved into various peer-to-peer applications like Limewire and the current state-of-the-art program, BitTorrent. The latter's creator just reached a landmark agreement with the Motion Picture Association of America on terms of allowable downloads.

This led to terrible abuses by people unconcerned with the law but had little effect on music sales in general. It also forced the music industry to reconsider the way in which it licensed distribution of it product. The result was the creation of a method for legal online downloads of single songs, epitomized by Apple's iTunes store.

The phenomenal success of these services, combined with a precipitous drop in illegal downloading, proves that when product is provided in a form-factor preferred by the consumer - rather than the distributor - motivation to stray outside the law in pursuit of the desired product evaporates.

Yes, CD sales are down but not total sales of music.

This brings us to DRM schemes: Every legal-download service uses some flavor of DRM, whether Apple's FairPlay, Real's Rhapsody, Napster's rather strange rental-versus-purchase system and many that use the Windows Media DRM. DVDs and some CDs also use DRM schemes.

Some of these are more restrictive than others, and how fair they are is subjective. But unlike XCP, they install nothing on your system - all the components are contained on the product. I should point out here that a component of the Windows Media DRM is within Windows itself. You agreed to allow this when you bought a Windows system or accepted the EULA during installation.

Most consumers who purchase digital media protected by a DRM scheme will never notice. After all, how many people want to make more than seven copies of a song (the restriction designated for songs downloaded from the iTunes Music Store) or want to make a backup copy of a DVD (the restriction created by CSS)?

On the other hand, the DRM scheme used by EMI on their CDs prevents consumers from downloading a song and re-encoding it into a format playable on an iPod.

Is this fair? I don't think so.

Nor is it fair that a song downloaded from the iTunes Music Store can be played only on an iPod.

These are the kinds of restrictions that motivate representatives of the masses to create means of leveling the playing field. Applications have been created to crack these restrictions - not to enable illegal activity but to overcome the denial of personal private property rights created by DRM schemes.

Sadly, there will always be those who thumb their nose at the law. But exhibiting gross disrespect for consumers' rights will never lead to elimination of piracy.

I can't offer advice on how to teach the difference between right and wrong - that's your parent's job, and if you're a criminal, they obviously failed.

But I can say this: Prosecute lawbreakers, but don't assume that I'm one just because I chose to buy your product.

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