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Out of tune

November 28, 2005

SONY BMG, THE WORLD'S second-largest record company, shot itself in the foot so badly this month that it may have wounded the entire music industry. Its disastrous dalliance with invasive anti-piracy technology gives music fans yet another reason to view the major record labels as victimizers, not victims.

With its CD sales slumping and market share dwindling, Sony BMG has been unusually aggressive in its efforts to stop people from getting songs for free. This year it has focused on stopping CDs from being copied, a phenomenon that the Recording Industry Assn. of America recently ranked as the industry's biggest problem.

It's a tricky proposition, both technically and culturally. CDs were not designed to prevent copying, and music lovers in the U.S. have grown accustomed to copying music onto their computers, portable devices and recordable CDs. But Sony BMG was dazzled by new anti-piracy technologies that promised to stop computers from making more than a few copies of a CD. The company decided this year to put these technologies on every disc it released.

Unfortunately for Sony BMG -- and luckily for everyone else -- a computer whiz discovered that this new technology surreptitiously loaded programs onto a PC that hid themselves from view and resisted removal. This approach created an alarming vulnerability that hackers were quick to exploit. Sony BMG and its partner soon offered a program to fix that problem, but the software made it possible for hackers to hijack users' computers through the Web.

Finally sensing that the technology did more harm than good, the label recalled about 5 million CDs that used the controversial software -- more than 50 titles. Anyone who bought one of the affected discs can exchange it for an untainted version.

The recall is costly, but it may be the least of the record company's worries. The Texas attorney general, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several private lawyers have filed lawsuits against Sony BMG, arguing that the anti-piracy software violated consumers' rights or state laws.

Undeterred, Sony BMG continues to put out CDs carrying anti-copying software by another anti-piracy software outfit. According to the Freedom to Tinker blog, putting one of these CDs into a computer installs hard-to-remove software that alerts the company whenever a CD loaded with its technology is played.

This kind of invasiveness is mind-boggling, and what does it accomplish? It doesn't stop piracy. Anyone who wants to make a few hundred duplicates of a new Sony BMG release can easily find versions online that can be copied without limit.

In fact, Sony BMG's tactics might have the opposite effect. "Digital rights management" technology can be a boon to consumers, enabling new ways to experience music that are more flexible and personalized than 12 songs sold on a plastic disc. But Sony BMG used the technology to give CD buyers less than they're accustomed to, effectively treating every customer as a potential lawbreaker.

As a result, many music fans are more resistant to the whole idea of rights management. It's hard to blame them when its purpose is not so much to manage their rights as to reduce them.

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