Who has the right to control your PC?

Sony "rootkit" CD debacle spotlights broader clash over rights to control the way computers function.

Sony BMG Music Entertainment opened a rather ugly can of worms when it started selling copy-protected compact discs that planted so-called rootkit software on computers that played them.

Now, as Sony embarks on a nearly unprecedented recall and exchange program for the 4.7 million rootkit-carrying CDs already distributed to stores, industry experts say the record label's missteps highlight a broader question for the computer and entertainment industries: Who has the right to control your computer?

Sony's CDs, which installed a rootkit program that hid its copy protection tools deep inside computers' hard drives, crossed over a line of acceptable behavior, critics say. But the entertainment giant was hardly the first company to do something like this. Many other software programs also take over aspects of people's computers, often without consumers fully understanding what is happening.

"Consumers don't have any kind of assurance that other companies aren't going to do the same kind of thing (as Sony)," said Mark Russinovich, a software developer and blogger who first discovered the rootkit three weeks ago. "Which actions are considered actions for which users want really prominent disclosure? I think that's a complicated issue, but it needs to be addressed."

This issue cuts deep in the entertainment industry, whose music, movies and video games are particularly vulnerable to computers' ability to make perfect digital copies. But the question will increasingly cut across other industries as more products and services move online, requiring the use--or facilitating the abuse--of PCs.

"A personal computer is called a personal computer because it's yours," said Andrew Moss, Microsoft's senior director of technical policy. "Anything that runs on that computer, you should have control over."

Sounds simple, but it's not.

The average consumer PC is quickly filled with a myriad of applications, from instant messaging clients to media players to confusing DSL-networking software. Many of these make deep changes to the way a computer functions--often dropping automatic update features, for example--and rarely provide license agreements both technically specific and comprehensible to the nontechnical user.

"It really gets at how much control a user can reasonably expect to have over the amazing number of clowns that are inside the clown car of a computer," said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet government and regulation at Oxford University. "I don't know that there are good standards out there that respect the kind of colloquial property interest in computers that we as consumers have."

Culture clash inside the hard drive
The controversy over Sony's copy protection highlights two ideas of property that are clashing as the technology and entertainment worlds converge.

Record labels and movie studios have complained bitterly over the last few years that their intellectual property rights in films, music and games are routinely undermined by people burning copies of discs or DVDs, or trading files online. Recent analyst research suggests that nearly 30 percent of people in the United States have acquired music by burning a copy of a CD from a friend. Record labels are deeply worried that trend will do irreparable harm to their businesses.

They've responded by developing, supporting or lobbying for technology that shuts down the ability of a computer to make unrestricted copies. That ranges from Sony's rootkit software to the "broadcast flag" policies that would prevent digitally recorded television content from being traded online.

But if some computer owners have shown a lack of respect for intellectual property rights, Sony's invasive content protection tools displayed a similarly tone-deaf attitude to consumers' sense of ownership over their own PCs, critics say.

"If you wanted to take something from the lesson of Sony's rootkit, it should be that people want their demands for respect and autonomy to be taken more seriously," said Julie Cohen, a Georgetown University law professor who has written extensively on the intersection of property and technology.

Are these two sides always destined to clash? Executives on both sides of the technology and entertainment divide optimistically say no, and hope that gaffes like Sony's rootkit are a sign of digital growing pains.

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