Friday, November 11, 2005

Sony Pulls their "Copy Protection" Scheme

Sony decided to suspend making music CDs with their anti-piracy root kits.

I have not seen anything yet on whether they are going to recall the CDs they sent out with this code on it.

Frankly, Sony behaved badly on this -- they have suspended making these CDs, but only because they have gotten heat from it. They are not recalling the CDs that are already out, and the Mark Russinovich on his Sysinternals blog (and the guy who broke the story) notes that the uninstall kit Sony provided was not easy to get to -- you just can't download it, you have to fill a web form asking where you purchased the "disc," the artist name, store name, and provide your email address. Then, they email a link to yet another form, at which point I quit. I didn't have the rootkit on my computer, and did not want to install anything from these guys to get rid of it.

So... What to do? I am going to avoid artists and CDs from Sony Music until they recall the CDs they sent out and make their correction much, much easier to do. That's just me.

Copy protection has been around for years and years, for both music and for computer programs.

The music industry has had a love-hate relationship with technology for ages. In 1942, the musician's union (AFM) stopped all record recordings because "recording was ruining the jobs of 60 percent of the AFM membership." Wax records were being used on radio and at dances at the expense (the union claimed) of live music. This union action because of advanced technology went a long way to killing all Big Bands in the US. This is copy protection in a big way -- prevent the first copy from ever being made! More info on the ban is here.

More recently, the record and media companies tried to collect royalties on blank tapes. They claimed that any copying for home use of their TV shows was a violation of copyright. They were willing to be bought off by tacking royalties on blank tapes -- tapes with nothing on them! This was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1984. But, their efforts lived on in getting royalties from DAT (Digital Audio Tape) machines and tapes later on in the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992.

As for computers, in the '80s, Lotus Development had the spreadsheet program: Lotus 123. Its success fueled the success of the IBM PC and Microsoft's MS-DOS operating system. And, it was copy protected. You had to have a floppy disk that the software would read before it would run. In addition, the software recorded information outside the normal areas of the floppy disk, so that you could not copy it normally. Thus, Lotus forced you to buy one copy per computer.

Almost all computer programs sold in the '80s tried to have some sort of copy protection scheme. Some required a hardware key that is installed on the computer, that the software checks when it runs. They are still being used for specialized uses. Some, like Lotus 1-2-3, had key disks.

There was one very notable exception: Borland International, which sold a zillion copies of their "Turbo Pascal" programming environment for MS-DOS. They called their license the "No-nonsense License Agreement" and asked you to "Use it like a Book," meaning, you can use it on only one computer at a time. If you have one at work and one at home, you can install it on both, as long as you only use it like a book -- one user at a time. There was no copy protection on the software. They sold a ton of Turbo Pascal, and it made Borland as a company.

Now you have license "keys" in which you type a string of codes to unlock the software. This is used in one way or the other by almost all major software vendors. Each software company has difference responses to what happens if two or more people enter the same key. Microsoft has started to be hard-line about it -- they used to be fairly open. The issue with Microsoft is that overseas markets, most notably China, would sell literally millions of unauthorized copies of the software (called "pirating") with no recompense to Microsoft. China, being a communist nation, has had no real laws regarding private property, let alone copyright laws. One way to force the issue is to disable the software until someone at the company unlocks it.

Similarly with music. You can copy music from a music CD really easily, and it makes a file that is easily copied. With the advent in the last few years of high-speed internet service, and the internet itself, copying from one computer to another over the internet quickly and cheaply became very doable, and lots and lots of people did it -- mostly kids and college students. Software like Napster allowed people to communicate directly with each other, and search for music on hundreds and thousands of shared computers. Just click to download. I myself found songs that were out of print for years by just searching for it. It was amazing.

It is and was so easy to copy music that people started to do it, legal or not. Each time someone downloaded a song that they did not already have in some medium (like Vinyl or CD) the copyright law was broken, and the record companies even challenged the right to download songs you already had.

This latest ploy by Sony is the latest of a number of ploys used to keep this from happening.

My view is that the law, obviously, needs to be followed, and more importantly, recording artists and even the recording companies (who are taking some risk promoting a band) should be compensated for their art. Free music for all will eventually mean no music for all, because except for a few diehard musicians, no one will record anything. If you don't get your paycheck on Friday, will you show up for work on Monday?

I also believe that Sony and all other music companies can do whatever they want to try to prevent copying of music, provided they do not invade my privacy or damage my property. Sony crossed the line on this copy protection scheme -- they are damaging computers by doing this, by opening them up to attack, slowing the computer down, and modifying the basic core software of the computer. But, Sony can, in non-intrusive ways, protect their investment otherwise. If they want to tack on a request for a password everytime their CD is played, fine. If they want to have the music run only on a program of their design that checks every time is it played, fine. They can do that. And, the consumer can not buy it, too.

I believe that if the music is good enough, most, or at least many, people will buy it if it is easy enough to do so, regardless of whether it is copy-protected or not. Most people are ethical. Those who steal it if it is easy to buy it will not have bought it in the first place, and will have to deal with their Karma when they grow up. Sony, you would think, being based in Asia, would get this, but...

Apple has found the answer for now. It is not perfect, and it is not as good as just going out and getting the (non-copy protected) CD, but it is workable, and good for when you just want that one song or maybe just a few songs that you gotta have now. Apple's financial results is what will drive Sony to do the right thing, just as their own lack of financial results will do the same. Say what you want about corporate greed: it works in your favor when no one buys what a corporation is selling.