By Lorraine Woellert
Sony's Escalating "Spyware" Fiasco
Along with lawyers, prosecutors, and furious fans, artists are joining
the backlash against the label for slipping a hidden, anti-theft
program into users' computers
Van Zant's Get Right with the Man CD was released in May, but six
months later it still was doing better-than-respectable business on
Amazon.com (AMZN ). The album ranked No. 887 on the online retailer's
list of music sales on Nov. 2. Then news of the CD's aggressive
content safeguards -- a sub-rosa software program incorporated
courtesy of Sony BMG -- exploded on the Internet.
To prevent audiophiles from making multiple copies of the CDs, Sony
(SNE) had programmed the Van Zant disk, and dozens of others, with a
hidden code called a "rootkit" that secretly installs itself on hard
drives when the CDs are loaded onto listeners' PCs. Soon enough,
hackers began designing viruses to take malicious advantage of the
hidden program, and a Sony boycott had begun (see BW Online, 11/17/05,
"Sony's Copyright Overreach").
GROWING OUTRAGE. Overnight, Get Right with the Man dropped to No.
1,392 on Amazon's music rankings. By Nov. 22 -- after the news made
headlines and Sony was deep into damage control, pulling some 4.7
million copy-protected disks from the market -- Get Right with the Man
was even further from Amazon's Top 40, plummeting to No. 25,802.
The wrath of fans killed Sony's CD copy controls, with the company
pulling 52 titles off retail shelves, beginning the week of Nov. 14.
But the wrath of bands could be far worse for the company -- and for
efforts to protect content in general.
Singers and songwriters are increasingly expressing frustration at
devices used by record companies to protect digital content from
widespread theft that results when CDs are copied repeatedly or
popular tracks are given away on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, such as
LimeWire and BitTorrent. Sony's misstep has been bad for the company
-- and its effects could spread much further, should the consumer
outcry gain traction with the recording artists who need to keep their
fans happy if they want to sell records.