Anti-copy software triggers lawsuits


A California-based digital-rights group and the Texas attorney general sued Sony BMG Music Entertainment yesterday for selling compact discs with anti-piracy software that allegedly leaves computers vulnerable to hackers and viruses.

The cases highlight the narrow line walked by the recording industry as it seeks ways to deter bootleggers. To be effective, copy-protection systems must be tough to crack. But software that's too intrusive risks alienating music buyers - as Sony BMG's so-called XCP technology has done.

When discs with XCP are loaded onto a computer, they install a program that limits how many times the CD can be copied. Critics allege that Sony BMG failed to warn buyers that XCP could potentially weaken a computer's defenses to attacks from malicious software or hackers.

Embarrassed executives at Sony BMG, the nation's second-largest record company, last week asked music retailers to pull the 52 albums that use the software and said the company would recall up to 5 million discs.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said at a news conference to publicize his lawsuit that Sony BMG "hides on your computer secret files and then they stick it to you by making your computer vulnerable to things like viruses, spyware and even Internet-based crime." He wants the company to pay $100,000 for every time a Texas computer user downloaded the software.

A similar lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation alleged that Sony BMG violated California's consumer protection and unfair business practice laws by not adequately disclosing the effects of XCP-enabled discs.

In addition, two lawsuits against Sony BMG seeking class action status are pending in California and New York.

A representative of Sony BMG said the company does not comment on pending litigation, but would cooperate fully with Abbott in resolving the situation.

Sony BMG's troubles began this month when a computer security expert publicized his discovery of the program on some of the company's discs, including new best-selling albums by Neil Diamond and Celine Dion. Within days, a virus appeared that exploited some of the software's vulnerabilities, but it did not appear to spread widely.

Industry analysts said the negative publicity surrounding Sony BMG is likely to influence how the recording industry proceeds.

"In their eagerness to stop piracy, Sony BMG has shown that there are lines consumers won't tolerate being crossed," said Michael Goodman, a media analyst with Yankee Group. "And from now on, no company will court a lawsuit by trying something like this."

Charles Duhigg writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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