Sony, why are you so stupid? Get with the technological times.

By Zach Schwartz

Sony has revolutionized the consumer electronics industry time and time again. Examples abound, especially in the realm of portable electronics: the cheap transistor radio, the Walkman, and the Discman all come to mind. But Sony seems to be conspicuously absent as a real force in the incredibly lucrative MP3 player business. On reputation alone, they should be leading the boom, creating well designed, innovative, portable electronics. Even their attempts at entering the MP3 market have been half-hearted failures. Why? Ridiculously restrictive digital rights management (DRM) cripples the players, the music files, and the Sony software. Economics majors can correct me if I’m wrong, but I would say this is a debilitating diseconomy of scale. Sony Electronics is creating inferior products in order to serve the interests of Sony BMG Records, which is just bad business.

While normal DRM may simply drive down sales, Sony’s most recent endeavor to protect its music has gone beyond abject failure to bordering on illegal. Earlier last year, Sony BMG thought it would be a fine idea to place software that secretly installed a rootkit on their customer’s computers when they attempted to play their Sony audio CDs on their computers. Rootkits, which date back to the early days of Unix, essentially allow unauthorized access to every aspect of a computer. They are notoriously difficult to detect and even more difficult to remove. Worse, while Sony’s intentions were probably only mildly malicious, this rootkit leaves gaping security holes which have already been exploited by at least one virus. The icing on the cake was Sony’s response.

“Most people, I think, don’t even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care about it?” said Thomas Hesse, Sony’s global digital business president, in an interview on NPR on November 4. Later in the debacle Sony significantly changed their tune, recalling the CDs and releasing a “patch” to remove the rootkit from computers. According to reports, however, the “patch” does not remove the software, but merely makes it visible and can actually further destabilize a computer. Sony has yet to admit this error.

Determined, the technologically adept will defeat pretty much anything the corporate world can muster. Many just do it for fun at this point and then triumphantly post instructions online so even non-nerds can remove whatever restrictions companies attempt to apply. Moreover, it’s unclear that restrictive digital rights management (DRM) effectively prevents piracy. It only takes a couple of people bypassing the protections and sharing the files before everyone can have a copy. Sony and other companies need to get in touch with reality and understand that they simply cannot win at this game. They need to embrace it, as companies such as Saddle Creek and Merge—who both offer free MP3s to customers who purchase the vinyl albums—have done. Sony may not be an indie label, but it needs to get hip, fast.