Sony DRM meltdown

We need a new, short pithy word for “unbelievable! no, it’s really, completely unbelievable!” I’m tired of saying the phrase and others like it, but it seems lately I have to every time I look at a newspaper. UNOIRCU? Unwarkoo…maybe workable…

The latest repeated stimulus for the sentiment is not from Washington, but from the world of music, art, and all that is good in the world: the unfolding drama that began with Sony BMG’s truly stupefyingly bad idea to secretly put a little program on audio CDs–yes, audio–that installed itself invisibly in the darkest middle of Windows if you loaded the CD, and prevented you from doing things like copying songs from the CD more than thrice. This kind of program is beloved of virus malefactors, and called a rootkit. Not surprisingly, their customers were not completely OK with this idea, especially as the CDs were sold at the same price as CDs that permitted copying to files and to iPods, but super-especially when it turned out the program was extremely difficult to remove without trashing the CD drive or the operating system, and super-extra-mega-especially when it turned out to be an open window for malicious programs and viruses.

Couldn’t make this stuff up, right? Impossible to imagine a conversation around the executive table among grownups that allowed this lunatic plan to go forward? Ha. It now turns out they have another one out there, on different CDs…but that’s not all! With this you get a set of steak knives…no, you get an uninstall program hastily put out by Sony that [pause for emphasis here] opens not a window but a barn door for malware to take over your computer and mess with it to the moon, and–no, really!–another with the same, um, flaw for the second misbegotten protection program!

More tech details here (Nov. 16 post headed “Victory!”)

For some reason this story, which has not ended yet, has received relatively little attention in the political blogosphere. It’s not just been irresistibly ghastly to regard, like watching a train fall into a river in slow motion as the bridge fails under it, but important. Sony’s insouciant idea is that they have such an absolute right to control your use of songs you thought you “bought” that they can proceed with completely callous disregard for your computer (and the victims of the spam and virus it can be coopted to send hither and yon). Their plan embodies the runaway idea of “property” that Lawrence Lessig warns about in his extremely important book, Free Culture, together with an astounding interpretation of what kind of invisible behavior is ethical for software a user doesn’t even know he’s acquired.

What’s happening is that recorded music is on a path from (i) a physical embodiment of a song that was very hard to copy and redistribute, but that you could play over and over again, sell, or give away, to (ii) something you can use as you please because you don’t use it up or deny it to others (a computer file). Sony, like other record publishers, is terrified of a world in which the business model they know how to use is becoming unrealistic, and is just the first to experience a corporate brain melt in which common sense, ethics, and prudence are simply driven out of the room by panic and rage. But at the same time, they are sensing an opportunity to seize a large part of the rights to use music that used to be sold with a record or a CD, and actually wind up ahead of the game.

Fortunately, digital rights management (DRM) is regarded by the people I talk to as a doomed strategy: in the war between dozens of publishers’ wonks and millions of wonky customers, the latter army will always win and break the protection, probably from anonymous locations where the Digital Millenium Copying Act can’t reach. Even if they couldn’t, all media can leak through what has been called the “analog hole“, the point at which music or video is rendered into an analog signal a human can hear or see (for example, on its way to a loudspeaker) and has therefore shed all digital protection and can be redigitized in unprotected form. This is the path that movies take from a theater screen to a pirated DVD.

The suits in the music (and movie) business are all over the wrong side of this technical revolution, and eventually they will lose unless they can get a grip. But along the way, they will be able to do a fair amount of damage to the social capital stock of arts and culture, damage of which the Sony debacle may only be an early sample.