Sunday, December 04, 2005

While You Were Studying

Copy protection notice on a CD

You may have been so busy studying for classes and preparing for finals that you missed the news stories about why you should not play Sony CDs on your computer. Here's a summary.

Anyone who uses CDs, DVDs, software, or databases of electronic information has encountered "copy protection" or "digital rights management" (DRM), usually suffering only minor inconvenience or annoyance. Terms like "copy protection" and DRM refer generically to the techniques that recording studios, software manufacturers, and other producers of electronic content use to limit how you can use the music, videos, software and other content you license from them.

DRM includes click-through licenses that you would never accept if you actually read them, FBI warnings about copyright law that stay on the screen for a specified time before you can play the DVD, and limitations on how many times you can copy a song. As a side effect, these techniques also frequently limit which electronic devices, operating systems, and software you can use to listen to the music you have purchased. But most people have not paid much attention to DRM restrictions.

Now, thanks to SonyBMG's overreaching, that may be changing. SonyBMG included two hidden program in over 20 million music CDs, ostensibly to prevent purchasers of the CD from copying it or converting it. The programs were essentially spyware, monitoring customer listening of the CDs and sending information to Sony BMG via the internet, but – even worse – both the programs and the uninstaller create huge security holes that make computers on which Sony CDs have been played vulnerable to viruses and identity theft. There has been an outcry from both fans and artists, Sony is facing at least three consumer class-action lawsuits and a Texas civil law enforcement action, and the story will undoubtedly continue to develop.

Click on the image at the beginning of this post for a guide to spotting affected CDs. In response to discovery of the vulnerabilities caused by Sony DRM, the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), a part of the Department of Homeland Security, recommends that you "do not install software from sources that you do not expect to contain software, such as an audio CD." However, there have been reports that the Sony software installs itself on computers even when purchasers click "Decline" and cannot be completely uninstalled.

For more information, after your finals, see the following links. In the meantime, don't play Sony CDs on your computer.

Correction: The Texas AG is pursuing a civil law-enforcement action, not a criminal investigation.

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