The public has spoken! Power to the people! The masses smote the faceless monolithic corporate entity, which now cowers in shame!
I'm speaking, of course, about the spectacular turnaround in the attitude of Sony BMG records. Last week, I wrote in this space about the nasty copy-protection software that the company installed on several dozen of its music CD's. Stick one of those puppies in your Windows computer (Macs are immune), and you get yourself an invisible "rootkit" program that runs in the background without your knowledge, and even serves as a theoretical hiding place for viruses.
As I mentioned last week, the record company was shockingly unrepentant at first. No apology was forthcoming-only, with prodding, "We understand what the concern was." And no action was forthcoming, either, except to post a patch that makes the invisible copy-protection program visible again, so that antivirus software could see it.
But since my last report, the story unraveled with breathtaking speed. Within days, two ACTUAL viruses emerged, each designed to take advantage of Sony BMG's little backdoor. The outcry online rose to deafening levels, spreading from ordinary citizens to university professors, software companies and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org).
Finally, Sony BMG cried uncle. The company had already announced that it would no longer use the rootkit method of copy-protecting its CD's. Next, it announced that it would stop shipping all of the existing albums that included the software, and even remove the 3 million discs already on store shelves.
Then it went even farther, and actually recalled the 2 million rootkit discs that had already been sold-a costly move. If you bought one of these albums, Sony BMG will exchange it for the same CD minus the nasty software; shipping will be free both ways. Details, along with an uninstaller, will be posted at www.sonybmg.com.
Finally, there was, yes, a belated but strong apology. "We deeply regret any inconvenience this may cause our customers and we are committed to making this situation right," says a letter on its Web site.
Overall, Sony's general incompetence when it comes to digital music boggles the mind. First there was its "iPod killer" music players, which were initially released without the ability to play a little file format called MP3. Then there was its disastrous Connect music store, whose design was so wasteful of screen space it was almost unusable. And now the astonishing move to copy-protect all of its music CD's-ironically, in some cases, over the strident objections of the actual bands-with software that behaves like spyware.
In any case, readers have flooded my mailbox all week with questions and comments. Here's a sampling, some with my responses added.
* "Is there a list of the affected CD's somewhere?"
There's a partial list at www.eff.org/deeplinks/archives/004144.php. Sony initially refused to identify the complete list, but now says that it will post the list on its Web site soon. Meanwhile, you can tell if your CD has the rootkit protection by looking at the back. If you see a black and white table called "Compatible With," it's copy-protected; if the Web address at the bottom of table ends with XCP, it's protected using the rootkit method.
* Angry consumers took their unhappiness directly to other consumers, using public arenas like the Amazon customer reviews for the affected albums: "I was so looking forward to the release of this album. But as a matter of principle, I will NOT purchase it. I sincerely hope that the disc buying public boycotts this and every disc that contains a copyright virus on it."
Don't be surprised if Sony BMG sees a dip in sales as a result of its newly publicized copy-protection tactics. Also don't be surprised if its executives learn exactly the wrong lesson: "CD sales have slipped some more! Must be those darned music pirates. Full speed ahead with the aggressive copy protection!"
* "David, the copyright watchdog application runs all the time, and eats up a percent or so of your processing capability. Other security watchdogs also run in the background all the time, and they steal CPU power, too.
"If you get stuck with several of these little beasts, your expensive computer will start to run slowly. Molasses-like slowly. A court of law would find that the vendors do not have the right to slow your computer down for their sole benefit."
* "Sony, please note: There is no right way to do a wrong thing. Wrong is wrong. When you are wrong, say you are SORRY and promise not to do it again."
This time, at least, the people won. It's amazing what the Internet makes possible when enough people get angry enough.
But why stop here? Now let's solve the spam problem, catch the virus writers and force the big electronics companies to settle on a single format for high-definition DVD players