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Digital Rights and Wrongs

The Sony rootkit mess is hard to understand.

Like most computer users, I love the way computers enhance my life at work as well as outside of work. The central innovation is their ability to make master digital copies of important works and enable me to modify them to suit specific purposes. At my job, this manifests itself in time savings with revisions, master chart decks, and content repositories. Outside of work, this should manifest itself in the same sort of time savings: I should be able to have digital copies of my own music, movies, and photographs that I can slice and dice for various creative and entertaining projects.

The trouble is, I can’t copy my own music to do with as I please. Why? Because companies such as Sony BMG have made it impossible to copy from CDs with the introduction of Digital Rights Management (DRM) software embedded into the file structure of the CD. And since Sony owns so much of the entertainment industry, it’s very difficult to find music that permits copying.

Make no mistake, I’m not attempting to copy my CDs in order to share them illegally with others. I just want to do simple things like creating mixes for my media player. I recently purchased a new compilation of Bob Dylan’s music from the PBS documentary “No Direction Home.” When I went to copy it on my hard drive for use with my Windows Media Player, all the tracks were copied as Artist Unknown and Title Unknown because Sony’s DRM software hides this information from the media player. (The disc was actually produced by a subsidiary of Sony, but 38 music companies are subsidiaries of Sony BMG and use Sony DRM.)

I like to create collections that allow me to play the songs in different orders than what’s available on disc without needing to interrupt my work to manually choose tracks from my CD. And sometimes, I like to get really crazy and mix collections of songs from different artists and discs. These are simple operations that anyone with an iPod can easily do. Lots of users like to make more sophisticated mixes with their music-melding and blending songs together to create fresh new ways of listening to the music they love. Sony DRM makes it virtually impossible to do this on a PC.

Though Sony’s CDs play fine on so-called Redbook audio devices such as stereo CD players, they don’t play at all well in PCs. The point of Sony’s DRM software was supposed to restrict copying and make it virtually impossible to share the music I own. But this software is known to be vulnerable to a particularly nasty Trojan horse virus, in addition to several other very serious security vulnerabilities, so Sony pulled it off the market. Now we’re left with crippled discs and no way to use the information on them. Experts who attempted to disable or uninstall the so-called “rootkit” software for Sony CDs have found that doing so completely disables Windows. If one attempts to disable or uninstall the software, the only cure is to wipe the hard drive and start over with a clean copy of Windows. Sony offered a patch for the problem, but the medicine was worse than the cure. The net result: PC users are unable to use CDs from the largest music company on the planet.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why Sony has chosen to create music without the key feature that makes music lovers favor digital over analogue. Of course, they’re trying to prevent unauthorized use of their intellectual capital. But they’re undermining their own efforts in the process. Sophisticated users will avoid buying Sony CDs and find other ways to get the music they love. And musicians who understand the motivations of their customers will avoid doing business with Sony or its many subsidiaries if they have the chance. So this fiasco will only hurt sales.

Besides Sony, the biggest loser in this deal is Microsoft, which has been on the side of more restrictive copy protection for digital media for the last few years, and implicitly endorsed the Sony rootkit by providing secret APIs and other integrated features of Windows XP to Sony developers. Apple, and of course the open-source movement, have leaned toward giving users more control over their own digital media, and have vigorously refused to allow Sony to put malware into their operating systems. As a result, neither Mac nor Linux machines have this problem. You can go to Apple’s iTunes site and download all the music you want to your Mac, mix and match it to your heart’s content, and copy it to your iPod for your enjoyment. That’s not an option for PC users, especially those who like artists signed by one of the 38 companies that is owned by Sony, spanning every music genre and age.

As Macs become Intel machines in 2006 and OS X’s many advantages over Windows XP become more apparent to price-sensitive users, Microsoft will only be hurt worse by its stance on intellectual property. When the same low-cost PC can either have OS X or Windows XP on it, and OS X is less restrictive on digital rights than Windows XP, OS X will have the clear advantage. Add to that other clear advantages, such as effective desktop search and integrated media management features, and Windows’ long-term future is in trouble.

One of the trends I am tracking relates to the way the big tech companies are shifting focus away from business computing use and towards consumer computing. This makes sense because many of the big challenges to business user productivity have been solved while the innovation horizon for home users is a long ways off. If you look at the typical Office suite, you’ll see that there aren’t a lot of new features available to users. That’s because there aren’t a lot of ways to improve users’ productivity with Office. Many CIOs these days focus more of their attention on consolidating infrastructure to cut costs rather than driving productivity through new software innovations. This in itself is innovative, but it does not address user productivity with innovation.

By contrast, consumer computing is starting to explode with innovation. IBM’s Cell processor is an example of this trend. The processor is the core of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 gaming system, and will appear in the next generation gaming systems from Nintendo and Sony in 2006. And this is just the beginning of the Cell processor’s role in home computing. We can expect all kinds of media center computing options in the future using this chip as the core. The Xbox gives us a sneak peak of this innovation.

What is the point of all this innovation from a user perspective? To give home users more control over the media they enjoy. This means allowing more creative ways to mix and match the media they own. Imagine an interactive home theater system that allows you to create your own highlight DVDs of your favorite teams from your DVR, complete with slow motion and your own voice-over. This is close to becoming a reality, and Cell will be a key processor in the fastest and easiest units available.

Ironically, Sony is a key player in the development of the Cell chip, which exists primarily to help users manipulate digital media. Meanwhile, the media arm of the company is trying to restrict users from manipulating their media. At some point, Sony’s media division will need to align its mission to the technology division’ s mission. The trend is for more control over the media we own, not less.

It’s really an instance of the central trend in information technology for the last 25 years, from more proprietary to more open standards technology that ultimately gives users more control over their digital assets. And that will become clear to Sony’ s media group as its sales are undermined by its restrictive intellectual property measures.

James Mathewson is the editor at large for ComputerUser and Lead Editor for IBM’ s ISV Enablement organization.

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