Sony BMG Music has a firestorm on its hands.
The label, in a bid to combat piracy, contracted with a British firm to copy protect several music CD titles. The problem: Playing the CDs on a PC requires installation of a software program that tech security experts say can be classified as spyware, and that can't be uninstalled without Sony's (SNE) permission.
The blogosphere has been in overdrive this week, as Sony has tried to calm consumers. The software restricts unauthorized copying, but it also contains a hidden file that security experts say can track consumer behavior.
"This is spyware, pure and simple," says Sam Curry, vice president of security software maker Computer Associates.
Sony put a downloadable patch on its website to make the formerly hidden file no longer invisible, but that has done little to put out the fire.
In Italy, the Association for Freedom in Electronic Interactive Communications advocacy group has asked the government to investigate Sony's use of the software, known as a rootkit.
Sony says the file is there for copy protection, not to collect information about customers.
Sony says 20 CD titles use this form of copy protection, from British firm First 4 Internet, but it won't say which titles. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit civil-liberties group, identifies 19 on its www.eff.org website from artists including Neil Diamond, Van Zant, Celine Dion and Switchfoot.
Most CDs play simply on computers through media player programs such as Musicmatch or Apple's iTunes. But these CDs from Sony BMG aren't recognized by those programs. To play them, users must first agree to Sony's terms and download an included software program.
First 4 Internet CEO Mathew Gilliat-Smith concedes that the software is put on PCs "to make it more difficult for the consumer to find the protection files."
Sony spokesman John McKay says the company "moved very quickly to address concerns" by putting the patch on its website right away, at cp.sonybmg.com/xcp.
But Curry says the patch doesn't solve the problem. The software is still spyware, he says, because the files can't be uninstalled without going through a laborious process. Some bloggers have complained of the software slowing down PCs. "The behavior of this is bad on all counts," Curry says.
Sony BMG says it plans to have all major new releases copy protected in 2006.