Legality. Morality. Country music. This is the trilogy of cultural imponderables that weighs upon me today. Sony BMG is in the process of being flayed alive in public for the sin of installing very nasty software indeed on its customers' PCs, and by the time you read this you’ll know all the ins and outs. None of this reflects well on Sony, which has only the smallest thread of decency left to clothe its nakedness — at least it hasn’t threatened to take the discoverer of the rootkit to court under the Thou Shalt Do No Such Thing clauses of the American Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Which it could.
Of course, it may not be doing that because the evidence is that its nasty DRM software itself contravenes software licensing, or that the real reason it installed the nasty software was to stop people putting their music onto iPods. So many reasons, so little excuse. Or it could be that it’s just mightily ashamed that all this blew up over a country and western — oops, my mistake, 'southern rock' — CD called Get Right With The Man. Other CDs affected include Neil Diamond, Celine Dion, Cyndi Lauper and Burt Bacharach: perhaps all we need to survive this corporate onslaught is a pair of working ears.
Yet the right thing to do here — find and kill the DRM — is technically illegal. The legal act — burden music with secret and miserable surprises — is immoral. What’s a man to do? Yeah, you’re ahead of me there.
I was faced with a similar dilemma at the weekend. A friend of mine, an Englishwoman born and bred, is on her travels with her laptop. She's also one of a number of pals on the BBC trials of iMP, which as I’ve mentioned is the Corporation's experimental broadband content distribution system. She loves it, and can’t wait for it to go mainstream. Part of the system is DRM, which is used to limit the time a programme is available for to a week; it’s also used to let people download content ahead of time but not see it until the broadcast happens, and finally it limits the iMP distribution to people in the UK.
All these are in place to let the BBC conform to its contractual obligations to its own content providers, talent and so on, and while there are good arguments why this isn’t a long term solution it’s a sensible compromise for a while.
But my pal found herself in a foreign land, laid up in a hotel bed with flu and with nothing to do. She wanted to see her BBC. Her BBC let her download the content, but refused to issue the key. “You’re not on the sceptr’d isle”, it said. “Go away.”
She skyped me at home, and while sneezing moistly out of my speakers — high fidelity telephone systems do have their downsides — went through some experimental procedures we could carry out to bypass this problem. None worked, until I found out that Windows XP has a VPN server built in. From the moment of realisation it was half an hour until she had his key: run the server configuration wizard, set up the firewall’s port forwarding for PPTP and IPsec, try a connection, solve a small IP address conflict, try again: boom. She was me, the DRM rolled over and asked for its tummy to be tickled, and she could sink into her foreign sickbed with a full roster of BBC entertainments. I left the server on for a few days and she had no further problems.
Now: did I do wrong? I certainly helped break a licence condition, so technically yes. Guilty. But she's a licence payer so she's already qualified for the content, the content can’t get any further, the technique isn't easily changed to a more widespread abuse of the system (at least, not undetectably) and is only really of interest to people who live in the UK and can run a server on a domestic broadband connection.
It certainly feels that what I did was a good thing.
I wonder how the head of Sony feels.