Lessons from the Sony CD DRM Episode

April 2, 2011

Back in in 2005, Sony-BMG released music CD’s with digital rights management (DRM) software developed by two independent companies. In late 2005, it was discovered that the software installed a root kit onto user’s computer, leaving the computer open to security attacks. The two vendors in this situation were XCP and MediaMax. Both vendors produced DRM software for Sony-BMG.

The Idea.

The goal of DRM is simple, try and prevent the public from redistributing copyrighted material and help prevent digital piracy. In order to achieve this goal, both XCP and MediaMax used specialized software that was installed on the user’s computer to control what the user could do with the CD. The DRM software took advantage of windows auto run capability. After the CD was inserted into the user’s computer, the autorun.inf file on the CD automatically ran, and the procedure to install the software began. Both systems then prompted the user to accept an EULA. After the EULA was accepted, the software would be installed on the users system. In MediaMax’s case, even before the user would accept the EULA, the DRM software driver would be installed on the system. In fact, MediaMax’s software would start being installed even before the user accepted the EULA. Then, if the users declined the EULA, the MediaMax software would stay on the machine, and in some cases, even stay active.

The MediaMax protection worked by using a watermark scheme embedded on the CD. One of the three least significant bits was changed in an audio cluster to a new bit value representing part of the watermark. The DRM driver looked at each audio cluster and analyzed its least significant bits. If the new bit string matched one of its watermarks the software knew it was a DRM protected CD. If it was a DRM CD, then the DRM driver would intervene and manage where the data stream could go. In many cases, it would send the data stream to an included music player that came loaded on the CD.

The problem caused by this DRM software was not based entirely on how the MediaMax or XCP protocol worked, but rather how the software was installed. The DRM drivers were installed in such a way that it would hide files from the operating system. This was used to protect the software from users trying to find it and remove it. Unfortunately, a side effect of this is that is allows malicious users to use the software to their advantage and hide their malicious code using the same file structure MediaMax and XCP used.    

The problems didn’t stop there.

When the companies eventually released uninstallers for their DRM software, the uninstaller created another security hole. The uninstallers used an ActiveX control that would execute commands on the system. After the uninstaller was finished, the ActiveX control was not removed from the system. Any attacker that knew the functions concealed within the uninstaller could use them to execute malicious code on a user’s computer.

What did this mean for the music industry?

Basically, the industry changed from DRM protected music to music that was no longer protected by DRM. There were three primary factors to contribute to this. First, the Sony/BMG fiasco discussed let other companies that were thinking of moving toward DRM music rethink their game plan. This coupled with public backlash showed record companies that consumer’s will not be willing to accept restrictions on the music that they purchased. The third reason was Apple. Apple has an incredible market share on the digital music industry. The iPod is one of the best selling digital music devices of all time. When Apple does something, many other companies follow so they are not left behind and loose even more of the market to Apple. Apple released a statement that it would not move to any type of DRM format. Rather, it would rely on its already existing practice, by not allowing an iPod to sync with more than one copy of iTunes. After this, DRM music started to fade away, and today, I do not believe any record company or digital music provider uses any form of DRM. In fact, I think that Microsoft was the last provider to use some form of DRM, but because of decreasing sales, due to Apple’s iPod, and the complete failure of the Zune, Microsoft dropped the format.

IT Support NJ - Reputable highly rated Small Business IT services and tech support company in New Jersey - powersolution industry awards
IT support NJ - Reputable highly rated Small Business IT services and tech support company in New Jersey - powersolution IT industry awards
Scroll to Top