Sony Sues SunnComm Over Infamous Rootkit Fiasco

Think back, the year was 2005 and the holiday season was around the corner. Unfortunately for Sony BMG, the holiday season wasn’t a merry one.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

It was one incident that may have left a few public relations officials for Sony with a twitching eye. Of course, this incident was the Sony BMG Rootkit fiasco of 2005 and 2006. After months of media silence, now the case is on the move again, as Sony BMG is suing The Amergence Group Inc., the company formally known as SunnComm MediaMax International.

Many would argue that before the rootkit fiasco took off, very few even knew what DRM (Digital Rights Management) even was save for those “in the know”. Once the fiasco firestorm emerged, one could easily argue that the explosion of press coverage on the issue made more people than ever aware of the shortfalls of DRM. The event, in itself, has many tying “unwanted DRM” to “Sony BMG” ever since. If there were only a couple things that left a black mark on Sony BMG’s reputation, the rootkit fiasco would arguably be at least one of the worst incidents to ever hit the major record label.

Certainly, what transpired gained little sympathy from any parties. One of the few people who actually swooped to Sony BMG’s side in the midst of the incident was the RIAA’s president (Recording Industry Association of America) who offered the following, “They have apologized for their mistake, ceased manufacture of CDs with that technology, and pulled CDs with that technology from store shelves. Seems very responsible to me.”

Thomas Hesse, president of Sony-BMG’s Global Digital Business, told NPR News at the time, “Most people, I think, don’t even know what a Rootkit is, so why should they care about it?”

Unfortunately, this didn’t improve things. Sony offered a removal tool and tried removing affected CD’s off of shelves, but despite this, the story became a public relations nightmare for SonyBMG.

Many arguments against P2P (Peer-to-peer) technology stems from malware cases and that legitimate customers wouldn’t be affected by malware. Unfortunately, that argument was effectively stripped from their arsenal. Though the damage ran much deeper then that.

That was when the EFF stepped in and sued the record company on behalf of those affected by the technology. Eventually, SonyBMG agreed to settle and agreed to pay for damages caused by the First4Internet SunnComm MediaMax incident.

Remember though, SonyBMG is also a multi-national label. In early 2006, Canadians also filed lawsuits against Sony. There were a total of four class action lawsuits in Canada

Shortly after the lawsuits were launched, SonyBMG in the US began was paying up.

Then, SonyBMG offered a settlement to Canadians. In essence, the argument was that SonyBMG already payed losses and damages in the US, therefore, they shouldn’t have to pay as much to Canadians. Right? Not good enough. That’s when CIPPIC (Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic) stepped in and lodged a complaint against the proposed settlement citing an extensive list of laws broken in the incident in several Canadian provinces. Not only that, there was suggestion that various commissioners would investigate the company over the technology. Also, while lobbying the Canadian government for anti-circumvention during this time, many that were arguing for DRM distanced their way from Sony BMG’s DRM solution and started suggesting how DRM should also abide by strict privacy laws as well.

It would be difficult for things to get any worse for SonyBMG in North America. Thankfully, after a half a year of public relations beating after beating, there was one thing Sony could be thankful for, the story finally faded out of the larger public perception even though DRM has become more well known.

Now, after over a whole year of silence on the matter, things are starting to move again in an interesting direction. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Sony BMG has filed a summons in New york against The Amergence Group Inc. What does Amerigence Group have to do with the fiasco? This is the company formerly known as SunnComm International, one of the two companies that developed the questionable DRM technologies in the first place – namely the MediaMax DRM which is said to “phoned home” playlist information.

According to court documents, Sony BMG is seeking $12 million in damages caused by the technology. Said the report, “The music company accuses Amergence of negligence, unfair business practices and breaching the terms of its license agreement by delivering software that “did not perform as warranted.”

Would this be an open and shut case? Not necessarily so. Amergence Group said that they’ll be fighting Sony BMG in court saying that the allegations are unwarranted and stem from Sony’s use of another copy protection technology. It was true, that there were two different technologies that sparked the controversy. Arguably, the more damaging technology was the First4Internet rootkit technology. The MediaMax technology was the technology that reported what users were listening to a database.

While not very common, media companies accusing anti-piracy organizations of wrong-doing and legally pursuing them isn’t necessarily a first, this latest case seems to prove that this won’t be the last either.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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