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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Sony Music's Route 666 the Lost Highway

When news broke about the potential security threat to computers caused by millions of Sony BMG's music CDs, most people had never heard of a Rootkit. Hopefully the blissful tide of ignorance is changing as wave upon wave of outraged opinion floods online communities. Or is it?

In a recorded interview for NPR, Thomas Hesser president of Sony BMG's Global Digital Business opined:

"Most people, I think, don't even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care about it?"

To many, his low opinion of Sony customers appears to be out of kilter with the main-stream of America and elsewhere. A Sophos survey of 1,501 respondents reveals 98% of business PC users think Sony DRM copy protection is a security threat. Since Mr Hesser's notorious rootkit sound-bite, the "Sony Sitcom" has taken a route all of its own. Every episode in the sorry saga has presented new and ironic twists in the unfolding story.

Consider the precarious road ahead.

Lawsuits litter the horizon and this may yet be a digital tragedy of epic proportions.

In another ironic twist to the tale CNet's John Borland reports Sony BMG has so far sailed through the rootkit CD backwash apparently unharmed. Data from market analysts Nielsen SoundScan and Gracenote shows no appreciable change in sales or trends for the titles in question. The Register follows up with further insight as to why this may be.

The crash course in DRM technologies offered by the tech savvy bloggers may have hit a brick wall. The vast majority of the CD buying public actually don't care, partly because they don't need to play CDs on computers anyway and partly because they are not very security conscious. The alarmed minority keen to alert consumers to unethical practices represents a blip in the blogosphere rather than a storm in the media. With the support of RIAA members, Sony will no doubt make all the right noises, sit it out and continue with the anti-piracy wars. (See Music biz to 'hijack' Europe's data retention laws - From terrorism to filesharing)

Did I mention piracy wars? The Wikipedia entry for a pirate is:

  • Pirate may refer to someone who robs other ships at sea, or sometimes the shore, without a commission from a sovereign nation.
  • Someone who commits copyright infringement, including pirate decryption, computer piracy and in particular, software piracy.
  • Pirate radio, the practice of making unauthorized radio broadcasts.
  • Unlike the stereotypical pirate with cutlass and masted sailing ship, today most pirates get about in speedboats wearing balaclavas instead of bandannas, using AK-47s rather than cutlasses. Fragment
Welcome to Neverland. In a story that gets stranger and stranger it appears the real battle is between the major record labels and Apple over the iTunes music store.

Both Sony BMG and EMI "hope to reach a deal with Apple, which will allow users to move songs onto iPods. But by launching the copy-protected CDs without iPod compatibility, the labels are raising the stakes in an ongoing conflict between Apple and the rest of the music business, which wants the tech company to open its proprietary iPod and let others sell antipiracy-protected songs that work on the device"

Instrumental in this "Treasure Island" the big labels are dreaming of is a variable pricing system where they can dictate what songs are worth. Variable prices means the labels can send signals to consumers that some products are better than others. This can be used as leverage against artists to manipulate deals in favour of the labels. Apple on the other hand (hook) uses a fixed price system. The conflict is about who gets to manipulate what music we buy. Joel on Software provides a good explanation in Price as Signal.

Looking more like the Battle of Trafalgar and the spoils of war, this is a struggle where the artists and consumers are the collateral damage.

With millions of infected CDs still in circulation and the prospect of similar DRM technologies to come, the emphasis is now on security software companies to protect us, but that's another story.

Beware the citizen who dares to rip, mix and burn. The blazing path to DRM glory rumbles with the sound of gladiators in their chariots of fire. This is no route 15, this is the hallowed ground of Hollywood and the only burning here will be heretics at the stake. This is the long and winding road to nowhere that angels fear to tread... a lost highway. Stand and deliver.

Repeat after me, the minority reporter's rootkit mantra...

"Most people, I think, would like to know what a rootkit is, and care very much about it."

Swingometer: Currently in Sony BMG's favour due to no obvious signs of a drop in sales to infected CD titles. However, the rootkit revelations are less than a month old and serious litigation combined with bad public relations could prove costly for the media giants in the long run. It remains unknown to what extent artists will suffer losses due to issues of trust. Consumers are the main losers having paid for products that degrade the performance of computers, open new security vulnerabilities, and install updates through an Internet connection to Sony BMG's servers.

Company Profile for Sony Corporation (Reuters)
Sony BMG Music Entertainment Company Profile (Yahoo! Finance)

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