Sony, don’t bite the hand that feeds you…

Black Hat Rootkit

One of my favourite authors is the late, great Douglas Adams. His humourous insights into any topic that caught his eye made him an immensely enjoyable read. The book (or books) he is most famous for of course are the Hitch-hiker books and one of his observations is pertinent to a situation that has recently rocked the tech world.

Now, bear with me, ‘cos if you haven’t read the books, this isn’t going to make much sense. Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect have just ridden on the back of a Perfectly Normal Beast and have gone through some sort of hyperspace rift into a new world, one that is populated by (amongst other things) a transport café, which they visit in order to gain some refreshments, and to see The King (yes THE King). There’s some REALLY funny bits about a credit card, restaurant write-ups and nibbling fingers, but I digress.

Once entering, the author remarks on the customers of this café. The establishment is a dark and moody place, full of dingy corners and shadowy, nasty ne’er-do-wells, such as drug dealers, murderers, assassins and record company executives.

This small observation, made in jest perfectly sums up the people we are dealing with here in connection with the Sony rootkit scenario.

The problem here is one of control. The record companies know that at some point in the future (not to far away either), all media will at some point in it’s journey from producer to consumer, pass through a computer.

Now the consumer sees this as an opportunity to transform & manipulate that media into whatever they want, in order to transfer it anywhere for their convenience. After all, they bought the media and they should have the right to do whatever they want with their property, correct?

The producer (in this case it is not the musician, it is the record company), sees this opportunity in a completely different light. Previous forms of media transportation (such as cassette, LP), had little in the way of copy protection because you could never make a perfect recording, the same applies to VHS. The record companies were not too bothered by this, and there was little they could do about it anyway, the technology didn’t exist that would have allowed them to stop it, so they grudingly lived with the situation.

CD’s took them by surprise. From what I can see, record companies are run by people who have little understanding of technology. They failed to see the upcoming danger of personal computers and ripping CD’s to MP3, and are now playing catch up.

This ‘catching up’ basically consists of making up for all the (apparent) lost revenue they saw since VHS Video cassettes first came onto the market. In their eyes, when you buy a CD or DVD, you are not buying the contents of that media. What you are buying is a licence (details of which varies from country to country), to experience that media under the conditions of that licence, and to a certain extent, they are right.

Now the conditions of that licence have changed little over the years, but what is different now, is the Record Companies see that with the potential use of technology (Black Hat Rootkits), they can enforce that licence in a way they have never been able to do before, and even change the conditions of that licence when they see fit. They see this as their last chance to enforce something they’ve wanted all along, potentially make a pot load of cash in the process and they are not going to let go of it easily.

There are a number of problems with this viewpoint, they do not see them, but we do:

1) A pirate is not a potential customer, and never will be. The record companies think that every pirated copy of a song is a lost sale. This is obviously incorrect and ignores a basic understanding of how consumers operate. Bill Gates once said in connection to piracy rates of his software in China, (and I’m paraphrasing here), “If they’re going to pirate software, let’s make sure it’s ours. We’ll figure out a way to collect later.”

2) Fair use. Now this little loophole in the licensing conditions differs from country to country. Where the law applies, you can make a back-up of the CD’s you have bought for your own usage. Some countrys are less than flexible (such as the UK), and other laws state that you cannot broadcast the songs you have bought to other people. The law regarding fair use is badly thought out and confusing. Consumers need a simple, fair system that takes into account their listenting & watching habits, plus takes into account the use of new technology. Until this happens, consumers will feel it is their right to treat their music in any way they want.

3) Respect for the consumer. What the record companys don’t understand, is that by tighteneing the grip on the listening conditions of their media, they will squeeze all the life out of it, and kill it stone dead. The consumer will not agree to (for instance), buying another copy of their music CD to give to their friend. They will simply copy it using iTunes, as they did before with LP’s and cassettes. The record companies have not lost a sale, because their friend would not have bought it anyway. The tenuous relationship that exists in this licence is the best they are going to get. If they push too hard, sales will go DOWN, not up.

What they should be doing is introducing fair DRM, like iTunes, on their CD’s. (Apple – a chance to licence FairPlay here please?). How about lowering their prices, and giving better value for money with these CD’s in terms of discounted tickets for live events, fan clubs & merchandise? This would give added value to the physical CD, and is something that is impossible to pirate.

Record companies, and all media companies have a problem with piracy, but this is not a new phenomenon. Their business model is totally reliant on a flexible approach to usage rights and if they try to alter this approach to the detriment of their customers, these customers will simply walk away, (probably in the direction of BitTorrent). The best way to fight it is by treating this threat as a competitor for your customers, not by treating your customers as criminals.

If you haven’t read the passage in Hitch-hikers as described above, the following won’t make any sense either, but a statement in this book sums up the attitude that media companies should have towards us:

“You should never bite the hand that feeds you. Nibble it occasionally, even suck on it really hard sometimes, but not actually bite it.”

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