DRM, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways. One, two, three, four… no wait, I’m only allowed up to three.
I recently obtained the new Foo Fighters CD, “In Your Honor.” It’s a two disc set, with the image of a buffalo’s head on one CD and a buffalo’s arse on the other. As I’m about to explain, this second image would make a quite fitting logo for the DRM software found on the album.
“In Your Honor”, released by RCA Records (a unit of Sony BMG), contains DRM software that severely limits your ability to enjoy the product that you paid for. The CDs work fine in a regular CD player, but they are a hassle to use on a computer running Windows. Most recently, Sony’s DRM software has received negative publicity because it prevents users from transferring their music onto iPods.
How does Sony accomplish this? Their CDs contain autorun files that start up the DRM software as soon as you enter them into your CD tray. Knowing this, when I loaded the Foo Fighters CD, I held in the shift key on my keyboard to prevent the software from executing. I then opened Windows Media Player to play the CD, and celebrated a premature victory when I began to hear music coming through my speakers.
After listening to a few seconds of the first track, I thought to myself, “This song sucks!” What I heard sounded more like noise than music. Then I realized that what I was listening to was the encoded track that was specifically designed to garble the sound. Bypassing the DRM software wouldn’t be enough. As it turned out, I actually needed the DRM software to hear the songs correctly.
Giving in, I re-inserted the CD and allowed autorun to load. I was quickly presented with a program named “MediaMax” and its end user license agreement. The end user license agreement explained all the rights I don’t have as their customer, and all the rights Sony has for being my wonderful music provider. After reading the EULA, I was left with a distinct feeling of privilege to be their paying customer. (Pardon that deafening shriek in the background, but that’s my sarcasm detector about to explode.)
Clicking “I do not accept the terms of this agreement” shuts down the program and ejects the CD from the computer. Either you agree to their restrictions or you don’t hear the music on your computer. Giving in again, I re-inserted the CD and agreed to their terms.
Suddenly my monitor turned black and a full-screen window appeared. The window notified me that the program was connecting to the Internet to download a license that would allow me to play the album. Thirty seconds later the download was complete, and I was left with a feeling that I hadn’t felt since I was five years old. “Mommy, can I put on the radio?” In this case mommy was Sony and the answer was, apparently, yes.
Let’s review the story so far. If you’re using Windows and want to listen to the Foo Fighters album on your computer, you must 1. agree to a legal contract, 2. allow Sony to install software on your computer and 3. have an Internet connection. What if you don’t have an Internet connection? What happens if Sony’s site is experiencing a heavy load? What if thirty years from now you want to listen to the music you enjoyed in your youth but you can’t because Sony.com now points to a porn site? I hate the idea of being forever dependent on Sony to enjoy music that I’ve already paid for.
After enduring this hassle, I was ready to enjoy the music. I shutdown the license downloader and opened Winamp to play the CD. When the first track began playing I was surprised to hear the same garbled noise as before. Silly, silly me. As it turns out you need the DRM software to play the music for you. The DRM software appears to wrap itself around Windows Media Player, although I read that you can customize the application to use Winamp instead. Either way, you need to start and stop the songs from within Sony’s DRM program itself.
Using the “My Computer” link on my desktop, I double clicked on the CD icon to load the DRM software yet again. After checking my credentials (again), the program presented me with its music player. Although you can minimize this player, you can’t resize the window which takes up the entire screen. If you’re going to force me to use your software, please, at least make it user friendly!
After listening to the first three tracks, which by the way weren’t much better ungarbled, I decided that I had had enough. I wasn’t going to pay Sony $13.00 and give up my rights for mediocre music. It was time to return the CD and uninstall their software. Unfortunately, uninstalling the DRM software would prove to be rather difficult, and by rather difficult I mean impossible.
Removing the DRM
I poked around my computer to locate MediaMax but couldn’t find it in any of the usual places. Not wanting to dig around the Windows registry, I decided to contact Sunncomm International. Sunncomm is the company who developed and supports the MediaMax software for Sony.
I sent Sunncomm this brief message,
“I’ve returned my [Foo Fighters] CD to the store and would like to uninstall your software from my computer. How do I go about uninstalling the DRM software?”
Less than an hour later, I received this response,
“Thank you for contacting us, Michael. We apologize for any inconvenience.
Please note that MediaMax was designed to manage and safeguard the copyrights of specified artists’ CDs while giving you an enhanced visual and listening experience. It does not interfere with or impact any of the normal operations and/or functions of your computer.
Please let us know if we can assist you further.
SunnComm Tech Support”
Hmm. Maybe they misread my email? I followed up with this,
Thanks for your prompt reply. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that you answered my question. I wasn’t asking what MediaMax is, but was instead looking for instructions on how to remove it from my computer.
When I inserted the Foo Fighter’s CD, it connected to the Internet and downloaded a key. I’d like to know where the key is so that I may delete it from the machine. I suspect other files were also copied to my hard drive and I would like to remove those as well.
If I purchase a software program for my computer and decide to return it, I need to uninstall it from my computer before doing so. Otherwise I’d be stealing the software. Since I’ve already returned the Foo Fighters CD, I feel like I’m stealing your software since it’s still on my computer. On top of that, I just don’t want it on there.
Basically, my question is, how do I restore my computer to its original state before I made the mistake of running your software?
Later in the day, I received this more helpful response,
“To our Valued Customer…
You have received this email because you requested a means to remove
SunnComm’s MediaMax software from your computer. Please be aware that
removal of the MediaMax software will result in a loss of special features
provided on this CD.
Click the link, below, for one-time access to a web page which will enable
the removal of our software:
SunnComm Tech Support”
Clicking on the link, I was taken to a web page that required ActiveX. As a FireFox user, I am protected from the security threat that is ActiveX, and was therefore unable to run their uninstall utility. Remember the days of DOS when uninstalling a program was as simple as deleting the directory it lived in? Conversely, removing Sony’s DRM software requires an Internet connection, Internet Explorer and an ActiveX control.
How was I to know that I needed all of this to enjoy and then later return the album? Well, according to Sunncomm’s web site I should have read the minimum system requirements on the back of the audio CD. Call me old fashioned, but I think the only minimum system requirements that you should ever find on the back of a CD should read like this: “Minimum System Requirements: A CD player.”
Sure enough, on the back of the CD, in very tiny print, were a few lines that indicate you must have Windows 98/2000/XP with Internet Explorer 5.5 or higher. Interestingly, it made no mention of ActiveX. I jumped on this fact in my follow-up response,
Thanks again for the fast response. I tried the link that you provided, but the removal process didn’t work because it relies on the use of ActiveX. I’m using FireFox which doesn’t currently support ActiveX controls. I also have Internet Explorer installed, but have since disabled ActiveX for security reasons.
I read through your Minimum System Requirements, and don’t see that ActiveX is listed. Certainly there must be a way to delete your software that doesn’t require something above and beyond what I was told my computer needed when I purchased the Foo Fighters album.
I don’t mind manually deleting the files from my hard drive if you’d be so kind as to instruct me on where to find them.
An hour later I received another email notifying me that my trouble ticket had been closed.
So, it’s either use IE with ActiveX to remove the DRM software or keep it on the machine. But what about the keys it downloads? Does their web-based uninstall utility delete the license keys too? According to their web site, the answer is no.
“Please note that because the keys are very essential in controlling access to protected music, Windows Media doesn’t allow anyone to have access to them directly. They are hidden in a secret database on the system that only Microsoft knows how to get to. Since those keys are very small and literally do nothing other than help the user play content that would otherwise be inaccessible, Microsoft never envisioned that anyone would have a desire to remove them. As a result, we do not have a way to tell the Windows Media Player to remove a particular key.”
Time to reformat?
So, even if you uninstall the DRM software the keys remain on your machine until you reformat your hard drive! Again, call me old fashioned, but I think that you should always have the option to restore your computer to its original state after installing a program. Such is not the case with Sony DRM. If you want to completely restore your computer to its original state, you must reformat your hard drive.
Reformatting my hard drive is much more than I bargained for. All I ever wanted to do was listen to some purchased music. I realize that Sony BMG is trying to fight piracy, but at what expense? Must they treat all of their customers like criminals?
At a time when the recording studios are complaining of poor CD sales, this hardly seems like the thing to bring people back to CDs. It would appear to me that the record industry is shooting itself in the foot. Companies like Sony BMG should continue to lower the cost of music and respect the rights of their customers while doing it.
Unless they reverse their ways, this is one former customer will now be avoiding Sony BMG.