Sony BMG, please keep off my PC

David Strom Special to The Daily Yomiuri

We all have a hard time these days keeping our personal computers free of viruses, spyware, and those annoying pop-up advertisements that can download even more nasty stuff to one's hard drive. Now we have to beware of music compact discs and their associated software that come along with the tunes. It is a sad song indeed.

For those of you that have not been keeping up, Sony BMG has sold at least 2 million music CDs with special copy protection code that comes along for the ride. Last month, security researcher Mark Russinovich uncovered the code, and eventually Sony BMG issued a recall order for the CDs. When the dust had settled, several antivirus vendors have released protection for the code, which can open up your PC to exploits by third parties.

The software is used to play the music files from the CD and monitor how the music is used by the PC, ostensibly to prevent digital copying and ripping the music. Even more ironically, the software is Windows-only, meaning that you can still rip the tunes on your Mac without having to worry about having this code enter your system.

What is troubling is that the end-user license does not make any mention of this code, and Sony BMG still does not do a very good job of communicating what is has been doing. Before the story broke, there was no way to remove this code without knowing a great deal about where it was located and how to uncover it. I guess that is part of the design: After all, why would you install a rights management client if you could easily remove it? But people do not install DRM, big faceless corporations that want to continually grab your wallet do.

Unfortunately, that Catch-22 is at the basis of why digital rights management will ultimately fail, just as every other digital copy protection scheme has failed in the past. While most people do not care, and just want to play their music, those that do care will spend the extra time like Russinovich and go to great lengths to remove it from their systems. And it is not because they want to become digital scofflaws. They just want to play their tunes where and when they want to.

There are also repercussions for corporate information technology managers, who now have to worry about their users bringing in personal CDs that have this stuff on them and could potentially compromise work PCs.

When I buy a CD (and I do buy them from time to time), I do not want anything extra coming along for the ride. I want access to my music in my car, at work, at home, and on any of the various digital devices that I currently listen to. I want to make backup copies because CDs are not indestructible and they do wear out, especially since I leave many of them in my car. And I do not wish to infect my PC with something that will sap its performance and communicate back to Sony what I am listening to.

It is ironic that contemporaneously with Sony's actions, the U.S. TV industry is getting its act together and selling more programming to people who will gladly pay a dollar an episode. Disney started this ball rolling, and last month other networks announced they will get on board and make it easier for people to download content. There is a lesson to be learned from the video studios that the music industry could learn. How much piracy would go away if we could pay 25 cents a song?

It was bad enough when the lawyers of the recording industry went after teenagers and others for participating on peering networks. It was bad enough when people and businesses that I do not know are trying to grab my bits and deposit their digital crap all over my PC without my knowledge or agreement. Now Sony is coming after my hard drive. As I have said before, Sony, and the rest of the music industry, needs to back down and treat its customers properly, or we will all go away. I know I will think twice the next time I buy a CD. Or at least run it on my Mac. Strom is editor-in-chief of Tom's Hardware.com and can be reached at david[a]strom.com

(Nov. 29, 2005)