On the failure of some folks to learn from Sony

From the perspective of having run the Sony Boycott Blog after seeing Sony’s heavy-handed attempts to preserve their IP, it’s pretty entertaining to watch the entire Internet seemingly up in arms over the DMCA takedown notices for the 16-byte hex key that unlocks the HD-DVD copy-protection scheme. Link roundup of some of my favorite bits:

  • Boing Boing: Digg users revolt over AACS key.
  • Ed Felten Why the 09ers are so upset (via Boing Boing).
  • A collection of Photoshops, audio recordings, and other versions of the number. I’m especially fond of the observation that the AACS key can be sung to any hymn tune in Long Meter (which includes the Doxology and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” among others).
  • NY Times: In Web Uproar, Antipiracy Code Spreads Widely. I think Brad Stone overestimates both the “sophistication” of the Internet users in question and the degree to which they have “banded together.” The whole thing is a little more like an emergent phase transition, where it only takes a small push to get radical realignment of an existing structure and shape it in a whole new direction.
  • And, of course, the last one, which I believe I saw on a mailing list but have adapted here to show a very pretty combination of colors:

Elsewhere: Sony settlements aplenty

There are brief stirrings on the Sony Boycott blog, where I’ve posted pointers to settlements made this week by Sony BMG to the tune of about $6.75 million so far. A drop in the bucket, to be sure… and there’s still an FTC investigation pending.

Combine these settlements with the recent news that major labels like EMI are investing in MP3 distribution rather than DRM models, and there’s a little trend. With the benefit of a year’s hindsight, maybe the Sony BMG debacle actually marked a turning point in the music industry’s long war against its customers.

Son of Boycott Sony?

I’ve received an email urging me to comment on the recent claims by import company Lik-Sang that Sony has put them out of business. On the face of it, Sony’s actions—they got a UK court to bar Lik-Sang and other importers from selling the Japanese version of the PSP—seem anticonsumer and anticompetitive. So why aren’t I jumping up and down with indignation?

A few reasons why I might be a little indignant: first, region-specific products are evil, a scheme whereby multinationals exploit national borders as a convenient excuse to gouge customers in different countries and territories to the extent that the market will bear (and piracy is an even more transparent excuse). It’s wrong in the music industry, wrong in the DVD industry, and wrong in the electronics industry.

Also, the language that Sony is using to justify its actions, to wit, taking the moral high ground on personally identifiable information about its customers, seems kind of … ironic.

But there’s another side to the issue. One, for better or worse, Sony is apparently within their legal rights in enforcing the exclusivity of their distribution network. So sadly we don’t have a lot of moral high ground to stand on—just a generalized grumbling about Sony’s anti-customer mindset. And if we fight this, we need to fight region coding on DVDs, import-only record releases, and virtually every other aspect of the worldwide media industry. That way lies Cory Doctorow, who does a really good job of keeping up with these sorts of issues.

But the other thing, frankly, is that Sony is doing a great job of digging its own grave. Look at its recent profit projections… battery problems for its own laptops and othersPS3 shortages… Sony just doesn’t seem as threatening as it used to.

Well, duh: Emusic wins with DRM free downloads

I don’t know why it should surprise me that eMusic is now the second leading download service behind iTunes on the strength of its deep (albeit jazz- and indie-heavy) catalog and its MP3-based DRM-free downloads, but it does. (See this decent profile in USA Today for details.)

The most irritating sentence in the article? “That eMusic has found any traction is surprising, as it doesn’t have any big hits. No music from major labels means nothing from chart-toppers such as Shakira, Beyoncé or U2 — but plenty from Scott H. Biram, the Pipettes, Dashboard Confessional and Peaches.” It’s not surprising to this music lover. Hits are for music industry people, so they can make a quick buck and get out; music lovers prefer something real, such as the Merge Records catalog, the Prestige and Riverside collections, Alan Lomax recordings, Harmonia Mundi… Ah, but I’ve said it all before.

Who says college kids are getting dumber?

WSJ: Free, Legal and Ignored. The subhead says it all: Colleges Offer Music Downloads, But Their Students Just Say No; Too Many Strings Attached. The article is about the unsurprising-to-anyone-except-Napster miserable failure of subscription based music services to take hold in universities. Compared to the complicated barrage of restrictions on the music offered by Napster, the students come across as models of common sense:

  • While Cornell’s online music program, through Napster, gave him and other students free, legal downloads, the email introducing the service explained that students could keep their songs only until they graduated. “After I read that, I decided I didn’t want to even try it,” says Mr. Petrigh, who will be a senior in the fall…
  • Purdue University officials say that lower-than-expected demand among its students stems in part from all the frustrating restrictions that accompany legal downloading. Students at the West Lafayette, Ind., school can play songs free on their laptops but have to pay to burn songs onto CDs or load them onto a digital music device.
  • “People still want to have a music collection. Music listeners like owning their music, not renting,” says Bill Goodwin, 21, who graduated in May from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. USC decided last year that it was finished with Napster after fewer than 500 students signed up…

There’s also a telling quotation from the director of the Campus Computing Project, who says, “The RIAA’s push to buy into these services strikes me as protection money. Buy in and we’ll protect you from our lawsuits,” which is one of the kinder descriptions of the unfriendliness of the industry that I’ve read lately.

I’m still waiting for someone in the industry to wake up and understand that their path to profitability lies in supporting good music and making their rich back catalogs available, not in fighting the fans of music tooth and nail. Today, three years after the birth of the iTunes Music Store, there are still many albums and tracks that can’t be found anywhere online—some by major artists (just try tracking down any non-album Sting tracks from before the late 90s), some by minor artists on major labels (Annabouboula, anyone?), and some by great cultural figures (I’d gladly pay through the nose for access to e.e. cummings’s Six Nonlectures as digital files, or even on CD). Instead we get American Idol and Rock Star. What, no one ever told these guys that a steady diet of candy can kill you?

BTW, for a good counterexample, check out Verve’s deep catalog—including a bunch of rare Impulse! recordings—though they don’t quite get it right; they support both iTunes and Windows Media, but no DRM-free offerings. But at least they’re opening up their catalog.

Lazyweb: full list of Sony BMG owned domains?

A non-spam comment recently arrived on the old Boycott Sony site, which is something of a rarity these days. Reader PJ asks whether there is a known list of sites that are owned by Sony BMG, or Sony generally, so that he can block those sites for showing up in AdSense ads.

I don’t have such a list. Does anyone out there? I suspect that part of the issue may be that Sony Music/Sony BMG registers unique domains for its artists, meaning that blocking ads for them may turn into a game of whack-a-mole. But I’ll throw the question out to LazyWeb anyway.

Sony settlement approved

NY Times: Sony BMG Settles CD Case. Yesterday the final settlement approval was granted by the judge who was presiding over several of the class-action lawsuits against Sony BMG over the rootkit issue. Terms of the settlement are what was reported on SonySuit back in February: Sony must cease the manufacture of XCP and MediaMax protected CDs, and must compensate all members of the various class action suits who purchased XCP protected albums with a replacement CD, a download of MP3 of the same album, and either one free album download plus $7.50 or three free album downloads. People who purchased MediaMax protected albums will get an MP3 download of the album they purchased.

Various parties, including the EFF, are still trying to get attorney fees from Sony BMG, according to SonySuit, so the residual effects will drag on for a while.

Don’t forget, you have until the end of this year to file a claim.

Rootkit revisited: Technology Review

Technology Review: Inside the Spyware Scandal. The MIT journal attempts to reconstruct everything that happened with the Sony BMG rootkit brouhaha (for details, see the Boycott Sony blog).

A reasonable recap of everything that happened, with a few revelations: First 4 Internet was originally hired to protect studio recordings from prerelease leaking, and the broadly disseminated rootkit technology just kind of happened along the way. Second, Sony BMG initially didn’t respond to F-Secure’s questions because the security company contacted the wrong Sony subsidiary. There won’t be any real answers unless the legal proceedings still underway uncover them; both First 4 Internet and Sony BMG declined to comment for the article, which kind of limits the scope of its revelations.

I’m quoted in the article about the Boycott Sony blog and my reaction to it, though I’m morphed inexplicably into a Web developer.

Unfortunately the article comes down on the side of arguing that there has to be some kind of “good DRM,” that all Sony did was err in how heavy-handed and covert its attempts to apply DRM were. I’m not sure I agree any more. I certainly don’t think the answer is going to come in trying to make something “consumer friendly” that limits your rights.

Who wants another DVD format anyway?

That’s the question I asked when the PSP came out, with movie capabilities — provided you bought the movies in the new, incompatible UMD format. A post at the end of last week on Wired indicated one of the business challenges such a format switch provides: getting the retailers to stock the disks. If Wal-Mart doesn’t see the value in carrying your product, it’s a pretty clear indication that you might want to head back to the drawing board.

The comments thread on the story suggests additional problems, such as lack of any UMD burners or home UMD players on the market. The last time we had multiple content formats coexisting on the market, each had a clear place—records lived at home, cassettes went with you in the car or a Walkman—and more importantly you could copy from one to the other. Ever since then, every new technology that was marketed as an “alongside” format, rather than an out-and-out replacement, has gone by the wayside (see: MiniDisc and DAT, which only survive as recording media rather than content sales).

Sony at it again: DVD based rootkit

I hadn’t been actively looking for Sony DRM links since putting the Sony Boycott blog on pause, so this one came as a surprise: an advisory from F-Secure that a recent Sony DVD (the apparently not completely execrable Mr. and Mrs. Smith) has rootkit-like behavior. The DVD contains DRM from Settec, which is designed to hide itself on the hard disk of anyone who plays the DVD on a Windows computer.

F-Secure posted this back in February; I found it from a few blog links. The usual suspects never commented on this as far as I know—perhaps because the DVD in question was only released in Germany.

Still. This is Not Good.

How not to capture the digital music market

A week or so ago, when Apple announced its iPod Hi-Fi speaker system, the Wall Street Journal published a fairly penetrating article about the impact of digital music on the hi-fi audio market. Interesting points: customers seem to value portability over sound quality (home audio equipment sales dropped 18% in 2005 while digital music player sales tripled).

As someone who’s doing a lossless ripping project to turn all his CDs into digital music files, who has spent some time and money connecting his home audio system to his wireless network, and who owns an iPod, I think there are several explanations for this. First, a lot of people can’t tell the difference. Really. Second, the convenience of searching by song on services like iTunes and Rhapsody (but not, ironically, eMusic, whose text-searching facility is horrible), encourages digital downloads for impulse purchases at the expense of other music purchases (no more buying an album just because you liked the single, or a greatest hits compilation because it reminds you of high school). Third, it’s not out of the question that people might want multiple iPods. I keep being tempted by those $99 1 GB Shuffles, for instance. Fourth, there are real advantages to being able to take the music that you listen to on your home system with you on your iPod in the car, on the subway, and on a plane.

Which may explain the last paragraph of the article, which describes a new service, MusicGiants Inc., that sells “lossless” downloads from “the same major-label content sold by services like the iTunes Music Store” for a 30 cent premium. Except, of course, that the files are encoded as lossless Windows Media Audio files (version 9 encoder), which won’t play on an iPod or a Mac and carry Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM; the service is only available for Windows XP computers; major independent acts like Spoon, whose entire back catalog is digitally available elsewhere, or even Sleater-Kinney, are absent from the service

All this goes a long way toward explaining the last sentence: “Sales,” says the Wall Street Journal dryly, “have been slow so far.” Well, duh. Fighting iTunes’ DRM with someone else’s DRM isn’t the way to go. I would go so far as to say that the only other horses in the race are eMusic, which sells relatively high quality VBR MP3s of independent music with no DRM attached for around $0.25 a track (based on 40 tracks for $9.99 a month), and Rhapsody, who have a deep catalog and an all you can eat business model (albeit with draconian DRM: if you stop paying for the service, your tunes stop working). Those are different business models with different benefits to the customer. The digital music market is big, but so far it’s not big enough to support undifferentiated services offering the same content, only with different DRM.

Boycott Sony blog goes quiet, for now

Sony Boycott Blog: Farewell, for now. I think it’s time to move into new challenges: like, having raised awareness of the dangers of DRM, how do we act to keep DRM free music alive? I will be embracing those issues in my new DRM category here on the blog and look forward to getting your ideas and input.

On a technical note, does anyone know how to prevent new comments from being added to a WordPress site while still allowing old comments to be displayed? Turning comments off on a post appears to delete all the post’s comments.

And, speaking of DRM awareness, check out this piece on David Byrne’s blog about DRM:

Happy New Year. Don’t Buy CDs from the Big 5.

CDs from the big five run the risk of damaging your computer, opening you up to security risks, and you can’t rip the music onto your iPod. Stop buying CDs now. At least until they guarantee us that they will never try this sh*t again.

O.K., I’m exaggerating, but if I need to carry around a list to know which CDs I can safely buy it’s getting out of control.

Don’t celebrate the end of DRM?

Interesting post on the faculty blog of the University of Chicago Law School, by professor Doug Lichtman, that argues that the end of DRM would be disastrous for the music industry and music lovers. He suggests that without DRM, the industry will have no incentive to invest in music or will develop some other draconian response to piracy, such as streaming music to proprietary players. He also argues that improvements in labeling law or changes to the law to prevent the use of DRM as draconian as Sony’s would backfire, as this would lead to legislating over what types of DRM are permissible.

It’s good to see someone even try to argue the value of DRM after the whole Sony rootkit fiasco, but in this case Professor Lichtman has it wrong.

First, as Doug Lay points out in the comments, imagining the major labels moving to supporting only a single proprietary player leads to some interesting speculative schadenfreude. Certainly it’s easy to imagine the major labels continuing their downward spirals by fragmenting the playback market and alienating their channel. But just because the solution to come might be further detrimental to the labels’ interests is no reason to keep an antipiracy solution that has been proven harmful.

Second, Professor Lichtman suggests that the law needs not only to require better labeling for DRM but also to identify what is and is not allowed:

DRM of the sort adopted by SonyBMG might similarly be so bad as to beimpermissible. But then we need to say more about what forms of DRMwould be permissible, just as we similarly today allow shopkeepers toput locks on their doors, call the police in the event of a burglary,and so on.

If I’m not mistaken, there are a few lawsuits out there that point out ways in which Sony BMG’s DRM is in violation of existing laws against spyware, computer fraud, false or misleading statements, trespass, false advertising, unauthorized computer tampering, and other generally consumer hostile acts. I think this point of Professor Lichtman’s is a red herring. As Doug Lay points out, we don’t need new laws, we need Sony to be punished for violating the laws they’ve already done. In fact, I’m not sure I’d say that legislation against DRM is needed at this point even after this case, and perhaps on this point I do agree with Professor Lichtman, though for different reasons. I think we still need to see what the market, competitive pressures, and general customer awareness will do to address the labeling problem, and in the meantime the fallout from lawsuits will hopefully force Sony BMG and other labels to reconsider their choices.

Finally, Professor Lichtman assumes that the major labels’ investment in music somehow creates value for the musician and the customer. I’m not going to comment except to point out that the list of XCP infected discs contained albums by Celine Dion and Our Lady Peace. And I’m not sure how anyone could construe putting XCP on discs of reissued material by Dexter Gordon, Louis Armstrong, Art Blakey, Shel Silverstein, Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan, or Dion, all on the XCP list, as constituting protecting an ongoing investment in music.

(Originally posted on the Sony Boycott blog. I don’t normally crosspost material like this except for my music reviews, but thought there might be some readers here who aren’t following the Boycott blog who might find this discussion interesting.)

Weekend update, and Boycott Sony on the air

I have a fair number of updates from the weekend to post, including Justin Rosolino’s gig at Club Passim, the annual Old South Thanksgiving service at the historic Old South Meetinghouse, and the (all-but) completion of our bathroom renovation—not to mention a CD review. But in the meantime, check out the Sony Boycott blog, where things have been popping now that the mainstream media has picked up the story. And be sure to listen in when I go on the air to discuss the Sony situation, in about fifty minutes.