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Last Updated: Friday, 4 November 2005, 11:35 GMT
The rootkit of all evil?
Sony is in trouble but we might be the ones who lose out in the end, says technology commentator Bill Thompson.

Image of a CD
Sony says it has been using XCP for months
Sony BMG, the record company part of the multinational corporation that makes laptops, TVs, movies and many other things, is in trouble this week thanks to a copy protection scheme it has used on a number of its CDs.

The software, called Extended Copy Protection or XCP, hides itself on your hard drive using techniques normally reserved for viruses, worms and trojans, which use similar "rootkits" to evade detection.

And if you notice it is there and try to remove it you may stop your computer recognising its CD drive.

This is because the cloaking techniques involve making changes to the Windows registry, altering the way device drivers work and generally messing with your installation.

XCP was developed by a UK company called First 4 Internet, and Sony says that it has been using it for months.

It is one of many competing techniques used by record companies to try to stop people making copies of music files from CD as they fear that their customers will then make the music available online without permission.

Mac happy

The existence of the hidden files was noticed by Windows expert Mark Russinovich.

He was scanning his system for security breaches when he noticed something odd going on, and he quickly realised that the suspicious software had been installed when he first listened to the album Get Right With the Man by country rockers Van Zant.

The point of the exercise is to force you to use the supplied music player software if you want to listen to the songs on the album. And, as you would expect, it also limits your ability to copy the music files to your hard drive or MP3 player.

A spokesman for Sony BMG said the licence agreement on the CDs were explicit about what was being installed and how to go about removing it. It referred technical questions to First 4 Internet.

Of course, like so many other companies, Sony's super copy protection only applies to people using Windows PCs.

If you have got a Mac or a Linux box then you can play and even copy you disc happily, because the real WAV files that a CD player uses are there on the disc.

If I was a PC user faced with a disc that insisted on using some non-standard player to let me listen to the music I had just paid for I would have no compunction at all about heading off to the nearest peer-to-peer site to download clean, high-quality copies of the songs I wanted.

Bill Thompson
I suspect that Sony would be very interested indeed in a version of Windows that controlled music playback without the need for any extra software from them

Or just asking a Mac-using friend to rip them into my music library.

Of course I would keep the disc, because this is not about getting music for free and depriving artists of their income. It is about letting record companies know that we have reasonable expectations for what we can do with the music we buy and we will not put up with their games.

Fortunately, it is possible to avoid buying discs like this. Philips, who defined the CD standard and then made it widely available, has been very clear that these music delivery systems do not count as Compact Discs and cannot use the CD logo.

As far back as 2002, Philips representative Klaus Petri told Financial Times Deutschland that "those are silver discs with music data that resemble CDs, but aren't".

And online retailers like Amazon will tell you that what you are buying is a copy-protected data disc that may, just may, play properly in your CD player but will not work as expected on your computer.

What Sony has done is stupid, but I am willing to accept that they did not really understand what they were getting into.

In fact, I would be surprised if anyone at a senior level in Sony's record division even knows what "cloaking" is or has heard the word 'rootkit' before they hit the blogosphere.

Copy choice

The executives who signed up to use the Force 4 Internet software probably did not realise that they were unleashing a public relations disaster of biblical proportions, but my pity will not help them.

They have just released a program that will make the files visible, though it still leaves the player software on your system, and First 4 Internet say they have stopped using these techniques. But there is already talk of a consumer boycott, not only of copy-protected discs but of all Sony BMG discs.

Five years ago this would not have mattered, but there are enough net users and enough blog readers out there to make a difference. After all, if you are thinking of buying a Van Zant album today and type "van zant cd" into Google, guess what you will find on the first page of hits?

Screengrab of Mark Russinovich's site
Mark Russinovich stumbled across the system by accident
It would be nice to think that the furore over the choice of copy protection system will change the way Sony and other record companies think about their customers, and that they might start treating us as honest fans who will behave fairly if we are offered a good product at a decent price.

But I fear that they are far more likely to look at the way that Microsoft has cosied up to the Hollywood studios in designing Vista, the new version of Windows, and ask for similar privileges.

Microsoft has told technology companies that if they want to develop system-level software that lets Vista play movies then they have to get the approval of at least three of the major studios before it will be included in Windows.

I suspect that Sony would be very interested indeed in a version of Windows that controlled music playback without the need for any extra software from them.

And I fear that the fuss over XCP will prompt them to get in touch with their friends at Microsoft, and then all Windows users will find that they lose the ability to copy music CDs.

Mac users out there cannot look smug about this, since once Apple move to the Intel chipset for the Mac they have said they are going to start using trusted computing features in the hardware that will allow them to exert similar levels of control within Mac OS.

And of course once there is a "technological protection mechanism" in place then it is against the law - both in Europe and the US - to get round it, so open source players for Linux platforms will be illegal. All in all, it is not looking good for those of us who like to buy and listen to music.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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