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The Invasiveness of DRM

November 23rd, 2005

I’m really getting sick and tired of these greedy, grabby media companies trying to control what we do with a product after we’ve bought it. One recent example is the Sony spyware incident, where people who wanted to listen to their legally-purchased songs on their computers discovered that Sony had covertly installed copy-protection software on their hard drives, which could actually be used by hackers to trash said computers. The Sony “DRM” program, called “Aires,” was in the form of a “rootkit,” a kind of cloaked software that hides certain system processes from the user. And while Sony “alerts” you to the fact the software is being installed, it is the typical spyware notice buried deeply in the EULA (End User License Agreement), that notice that pops up and demands you “agree” before you install software. The exact language is:

As soon as you have agreed to be bound by the terms and conditions of the EULA, this CD will automatically install a small proprietary software program (the “Software”) onto your computer. The Software is intended to protect the audio files embodied on the CD, and it may also facilitate your use of the digital content. Once installed, the Software will reside on your computer until removed or deleted.

Frankly, I think it’s time for the laws regarding these contracts be revised. I disagree with the libertarian view that if you don’t pore through every little clause in every contract you must sign (which would occupy half your waking hours if you did so), then it’s your own fault. I believe that common-sense relevancy should demand that stuff like that be written in clear, layman’s language at the top of every contract; burying it in the small print, even if it is clearly written, is nothing less than fraud, proven so by the fact that it was the seller’s intent to bury the information in the first place.

But back to Sony’s spyware: the rootkit Sony employed was not unique. In fact, it was the same kind of software used by hackers to put malware onto your system. Computer-savvy individuals caught on to what Sony was doing, and blogged about it. When the story got out, Sony assured everyone that the files were harmless and that they could be easily uninstalled. However, they provided no instructions on how to uninstall, and a layman’s attempt to do so could cripple the computer. Further, it soon became known that hackers were hijacking the Sony rootkit to spread malware. Soon, Sony was backpedaling like a sonuvagun, distributing software to uninstall the rootkit while sellers like Amazon instituted recalls. And now the lawyers are lining up to class-action Sony’s ass. And in this case, I say “right on!”

Copy-protection has always been a pain. I remember buying a VHS copy of “The Life of Brian” years and years ago. It had the kind of copy protection where the vertical hold would be completely lost if you tried to copy it. The problem was, in order to do this, the media company that sold it to us made the vertical hold on the original so weak that we had trouble watching the original–we had to constantly fuss with the vertical hold control on the TV. Copy protection is never perfect; somebody always finds a way around it. The only people it really hobbles are the people who buy the product and want to use it legally.

And that has always been at the heart of the whole “digital rights” problem–the makers of the media try to control their product long after they sell it or give it away, for fear that after it is sold, it will be taken and redistributed or resold at a later time. That attempt at control causes problems because it tries to reach criminals by running over legitimate users. If there were a way to mark each copy sold so it could be traced back later once a crime had been committed, then fine. However, unable to do that, the content makers instead tried to follow the product all the way along the path of its existence, which intrudes upon the legal consumer’s territory far more often than it ever got in the criminal’s way.

And that brings up the question of how much right the seller of a product has to follow a product after a sale. Not only for protection against illegal copying, but for control over what happens to a product and how it is used once it is privately owned. Because recent developments have companies using “digital rights management” to do far more than just protect against copying.

The latest example of this comes after TiVo announced that they would release “TiVoToGo,” a technology which would allow TiVo users to download recorded TV shows to their video iPods or Sony PSP devices. Predictably, media companies were outraged:

“TiVo appears to be acting unilaterally, disregarding established rights of content owners to participate in decisions regarding the distribution and exploitation of their content. … This unilateral action creates the risk of legal conflict instead of contributing to the constructive exploitation of digital technology that can rapidly provide new and exciting experiences for the consumer.”

But frankly, this is utter bull. I mean, really–“decisions regarding the distribution and exploitation of their content”? Give me a break. Once it’s been delivered to my home, by whatever method, it’s mine. I own it. Not the rights to redistribute, but the rights to privately consume it. It has been distributed and that process is over. Once it’s in my hands, I can do what I please with it, and the producer of the content can go to hell.

Think about it. Plug in any other kind of product into that equation. What if a store that sold you oranges tried to sue a company that made juicers on the grounds that they had rights and controlled what you did with an orange after you bought it? That the orange seller deserved a cut of any sales having to do with changing the form or consumption of the oranges after the sale? That you would have to pay extra if you wanted to do anything with the orange except peel it and eat it straight? That turning it into juice would require an extra fee to the orange grower, or that using the rind in baking confectionaries would be prohibited?

Ostensibly, all of these measures to control media are supposed to be only for the protection against said media being illegally redistributed. The case of personal home use has long been settled, not that the media companies will admit to it. They want to ride the illegal-download horse all the way into your living room, and assert permanent control over the media on the supposed grounds that it might at some point leave your home and go to someone else’s. But you soon find out that it is less about hindering criminals than it is about hindering you, limiting your abilities so you’ll pay them again to do what you should have been able to do in the first place. They don’t just want to control the distribution of the media; they want to control every aspect of how you use the media in the privacy of your home, which is far in excess of their actual rights.

If a media content producer delivers a product to you, I don’t give a damn what they think they still own. So long as I’m not reselling or redistributing the content, I can do whatever the hell I want with it. What right do they have to say that I have to watch it only on my TV and not on my iPod? That’s like saying that I can record it on VHS, but not on DVD, or that I can watch their show on my living room TV, but not on my bedroom TV. You gave it to me or sold it to me, it’s mine. If I want to deep-fry it in the privacy of my home, there’s nothing you can do about it, so get the hell off my property. It’s like a grocer selling you food, but refusing to let go, following you around and objecting to how you prepare it, trying to stop you from frying or baking if he doesn’t approve. Just as you would with such a control-freak kind of grocer, you should tell these media companies to back off and mind their own damned business. Audio and video media are not some magical product which allow the seller to invade your home and micromanage your use of it, and it’s about time that consumers asserted their own rights to be left the hell alone once they get the media.

  1. ykw
    November 24th, 2005 at 02:52 | #1

    Perhaps upgraded Norton and McAfee software will stop/remove this thing, and others like it. I don’t see why this would be hard to remove, after being reverse engineered, which is what the Norton/McAfee people do. I guess they (Norton/McAfee) needs to decide who’s side they are on. Also, if they are on the side of Sony, due to someone agreeing to the license thing, then someone else will provide a solution to block/remove the thing. Perhaps the cd copy programs will do it.

  2. mashu
    November 24th, 2005 at 09:59 | #2

    Great post! One of your best. Thanks

  3. Brad
    November 24th, 2005 at 11:24 | #3

    I get so mad when I think of DRM … I was in a good mood until I read your post just now :-(

    I use Linux and open source for almost everything. I love how I can open ‘word’ documents and such with Open Office or Star Office with very few problems. However the DMCA (that’s the legislation that was bought from congress by the software firms, right? Being sarcastic) will be used to stop open source attempts to reverse-engineer the next version of Microsoft’s documentation format. It’ll have some encryption/DRM involved, for content privacy and authorisation, and therefore anyone who tries to adapt open source to work with that format will be prosecuted. DRM and the lobbied-and-paid-for US legislation will be used to lock in the Microsoft monopoly.

    This Sony thing was egregious in how far they went to take over consumer’s equipment and rights, and, like you, I hope they get sued to hell and back. I didn’t know that they’d ‘hidden’ what they were doing in the EULA like that – stereotypical ‘small print’ evasion.

    I’d read – slashdot I think – that in fact the DRM code that Sony employed (purchased from a company and designed specifically for them) in fact has about 9 instances of open source code embedded within! From the LAME mp3 decoder, I think. If this is true then their overall crime is even worse, as any program using source under the GPL (I think it wasn’t the GPL, but something close to it?) must similarly be open and available.

    A couple of years ago I was reading about the attempts of the software and hardware firms to put DRM into the hardware – I forget what the acronym was called. Basically every hard disk, or monitor, would have DRM built-in, so even Linux and other open source software wouldn’t be able to get around it. You’d only be able to make backups and such if the provider of the material decided to allow you to do so, providing keys and such. Just evil/wrong.

  4. November 25th, 2005 at 02:41 | #4

    Luis, as usual, I agree with you 100%. I am fed up with media companies completely, and more than anyone else, the music companies. That is why I have vowed to not buy any more “new” music. I am only buying used cds as the music companies do not get any money from me into their bank accounts. I refuse to support companies that are so blatently greedy.

    The final push over the edge for me came when a friend had VIP tickets to see Coldplay in Houston…the night Hurricane Rita hit. Of course the concert was cancelled and she received a refund for her tickets. Later that week she received a letter from Coldplay’s management asking her to pay $15 for the free gifts she had received with her tickets. A cheap pair of walkman earphones and a laminated pass. She informed them where they could stick that idea.

    You are correct though. Once we buy a CD, it is ours to enjoy any way we see fit. If I want to listen to it on my iPod, then I am going to listen to it on my iPod. If I want to listen to it on my computer, I will. You can not, and will not, dictate to me how I may enjoy something I have purchased legally.

    What I find must amusing about this whole Sony situation is that it was only compatiable with Windows machines. Not Mac, not Linux…only Windows. Gee, thanks Sony! I guess no thieves use as Macs or Linux boxes? Good to know! “Oh he can’t be a criminal…he has a Mac!”

    And they wonder why file trading won’t seem to die out.

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