Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

When DRM Uses Spyware Techniques

By Dennis D. McDonald

There are a couple of interesting discussion threads going on over at Ed Felten's Freedom to Tinker blog. One is called Not Just Another Buggy Program, the other CD Copy Protection: The Road to Spyware. I reproduce one of my comments below, but I suggest interested readers check out the entire threads if you're interested in some of the business and strategic aspects of what Sony is doing.

One of my comments from the Not Just Another Buggy Program thread is the following:

Ed, I think the “risk perspective” is a very good thing to have introduced in this discussion. I agree: no software is ever “perfect.” We make decisions based on a variety of factors about when it is appropriate to release new software, whether that software is intended for use by the public or by controlled populations within a corporation.

Clearly Sony did not understand the risks for liability it was getting into. The issue of its contract programmers’ competence is related; Sony clearly did not understand enough about the (lack of a) testing process or about the variety of issues that would arise regarding the install/de-install processes surrounding both its DRM approaches. It seems to have missed the realization that its music division is now in the software business with all that entails.

Sony’s problems have to do with both its attitude and with its ignorance about the market it is addressing.

Attitude-wise, Sony has a history of obfuscation about its DRM practices that I first uncovered last Spring when I was investigating whether or not the CD’s I was buying online from various online vendors would actually play on my computer or on an iPod. I should have realized that something was amiss when the company I had been buying most of my CD’s from over the past few years — BMG Music Services — basically refused to provide title-specific DRM information in its online catalog. While I published the result of my investigation in my blog ALL KIND FOOD I should have realized that the general lack of availability of title-specific DRM information from Sony was symptomatic of its attitude about its customers, an attitude that would eventually blow up in its face.

Regarding Sony’s ignorance about the market it is serving: Sony’s willingness to publish CD’s that employ problematic (I’m being kind) approaches to DRM are leading it and its business partners to scramble to develop, institute, and support costly corrective processes and systems. I don’t think it really knows what it’s getting itself into by trying to “lock down” the use of products that retail for under $20. What portion of the sales price now has to go towards support for the labor and infrastructure costs for maintaining and supporting this worldwide infrastructure of DRM it is instituting? How does this cost compare with what it hopes to gain from preventing piracy?

It’s when I think about doing this type of cost-benefit calculation that I begin to believe that Sony’s DRM is really not about preventing piracy, it’s about competing with Apple — especially since it now appears to me that Sony, at least initially, was hiding the true extent of its DRM experiment.


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