Thursday, December 08, 2005

If you can't win, cheat

Music Man Cracks DRM Schemes

We're all well aware of the ongoing battle between digital content providers and the hackers who continuously foil whatever new Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme the providers come up with, either because they enjoy getting something for nothing, or simply because they enjoy the game. The content providers most definitely do not enjoy the game, undoubtedly because they keep losing. Perhaps their most embarrassing loss is the well-known DeCSS fiasco, in which the decryption algorithm for all DVDs on the market was so easily distributed, it wound up on t-shirts.

Content providers certainly have the right to protect their interests, and it is only natural for them to seek out new technology in preventing illegal copying of digital media. The problem arises when they cross the line between protecting their own interests, and interfering with the interests of others.

In 2003, DRM-maker SunnComm International introduced a new approach to copy protecting audio CDs in its MediaMax software...The software used a Microsoft Windows feature called AutoRun that executes software on a CD without the user's knowledge or consent...MediaMax secretly installs itself even if the user refuses to click on the license agreement giving it permission to do so...

The software "interfered with the user's ability to copy the audio CD at a kernel level," and also opened up the user's computer to security risks. In this case, it is the behavior of the DRM software itself that should be illegal.

If cheating doesn't work, threaten to sue

Holding down the Shift key stopped AutoRun and prevented the software from being installed. [24-year-old Princeton University researcher John "Alex"] Halderman wrote about the software, and the "infamous Shift key attack," in an academic paper and posted it online. Within 24 hours, SunnComm was threatening a $10 million lawsuit, and vowing to refer Halderman to authorities for allegedly committing a felony under the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA....In 2001, the recording industry briefly suppressed [Princeton professor Ed] Felten's research into a flawed digital-watermarking technology by threatening to invoke the DMCA.

Okay, here's the deal. It is illegal to copy and distribute digital content without a license. That's stealing, cut and dried. However, there is nothing wrong with pointing out a flaw in someone else's DRM scheme. It should not even be illegal to tell someone specifically how to disable a copy-protection scheme for the express purpose of illegally copying the protected content, as long as you're not doing it yourself. Questionable motives, maybe, but not illegal.

There's a reason the DMCA is controversial, for the same reason the Patriot Act is controversial. In protecting the rights of one individual or group, we cannot trample on the rights of another.

Which brings me to what's really bothering me lately.

Verizon is fascist

I was unhappy with Sprint's customer service, so I recently switched to Verizon. Of course they were eager to steal me away from a competitor, so they made it super-easy to port my numbers. One minute my number was active on my old Sprint phone, the next minute I was making and receiving calls on my new Verizon phone. So far, so good with the service. And I like my new phone. But I've already found something to complain about.

As with all cell phone companies, Verizon offers ringtones for download. Unlike Sprint, at least, Verizon prevents the phone from using any other sound files not purchased from Verizon. In fact, it even prevents me from recording a sound bite on my phone and using that as a ringtone, something which my phone's manual specifically says is possible. I asked Samsung about this, and they promptly replied:

Unfortunately it is hard to determine why new features are implemented in certain ways. At Samsung we design and manufacture mobile phones according to specifications set forth by mobile phone service providers, such as Verizon. Often times, the specifications are dictated to us and cannot be altered. Thus we are not able to provide a great deal of insight as to why a certain feature is not available, or behaves a certain way.

Now, this is what really burns me. If I want my phone to play "Crazy Train" whenever someone calls, I can pay Verizon $1.99 for this privilege. However, I can download the same song from iTunes for $0.99. Why shouldn't I then be allowed to use the iTunes song on my phone? That's fair use, right? If I can burn it to a CD, I can upload it to my phone. The point here is that Verizon is not protecting a copyright, they're protecting their business model. Even if I were willing to pay, what if I don't want any of Verizon's ringtones? Unless they're going to provide a library called "Anything Bob could say into his phone," they should keep their DRM hands off.


Jamey Lawton said...

Does the format come into play here or do the phones recognize wav files? Wouldn't it require additional software like a media player?
Cell phone companies suck.

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested to see if your cell phone contract specifically tells you that you can't download non-Verizon sound files as ringtones.

Bob said...

It's not a format issue. I've sent myself WAVs, MP3s, MIDIs, and QCP files, and the phone happily plays them all. It just won't assign them as ringers or alerts. I can only assign the built-in tones, which are all retarded, or presumably, anything I pay for and download from Verizon.

Bob said...

I'm guessing the contract says something like, "We reserve the right to do whatever we want, whenever we want, to whomever we want, so suck on it." But it wouldn't hurt to check....