July 19, 2024

SunnComm Follies

Ashlee Vance at the Register tells the amazing story of SunnComm, the DRM company whose CD “protection” product was famously defeated by holding down a PC’s Shift key. It’s one of those true stories that would be hopelessly implausible if told as fiction. Here’s the opening paragraph:

You might expect one of the world’s leading digital rights management (DRM) technology makers to have a rich history in either the computing or music fields or both. This is not the case for SunnComm International Inc. Instead, the firm’s experience revolves around a troubled oil and gas business, an Elvis and Madonna impersonator operation and even a Christmas tree farm.

The story goes on with shell companies, phantom sales contracts, SEC investigations, shareholder lawsuits, and many, many excuses from the CEO. Oh yeah, at some point the company found time to develop a laughably weak CD copy “protection” product, to threaten legal armageddon against my student Alex Halderman when he wrote a paper analyzing the technology and detailing its weaknesses, and to somehow sell the technology to record companies despite its utter failure to keep even one song off the file-sharing networks.

Readers who are even moderately skeptical of CEO excuses will recognize this company for what it is. And remember, this company can plausibly claim to be the leader in music DRM. Gives you lots of confidence in the viability of DRM, doesn’t it?


  1. Look at the history of many types of software, which often in the 80s and early 90s came with dongles and was hugely expensive (word processing programs for $500?). When the dongles and prices were dropped, well, no software was sold and software companies made no money, right? wrong — their profits went through the roof. Mind you, some went out of business because they couldn’t or wouldn’t compete, and that’s pretty scarey to individual companies and execs, but overall, the industry does fine. When you start protecting — or trying to protect — all companies and execs (and that is what DRM is really trying, I’d say, to do) you protect those individuals at the expense of the industry as well as their customers.

  2. Joe,

    I’d like to concur with Rob. Even if SunnComm could “close the shift-key hole” and force their software to run (which they cannot), they still couldn’t support every operating system. The current incarnation of the software doesn’t have any effect on Macintosh, Linux, and BSD systems, for example. This is an unavoidable limitation of the software-only approach to CD copy protection, and as a result we can expect “perfect” copies of any widely released track to appear on file sharing networks.

    The restrictions imposed by SunnComm’s technology decrease the value offered by purchased music while increasing the relative value of peer-to-peer infringement. This is a recipe for lower sales.

  3. I’m just being a devil’s advocate… I know it will be circumvented.

    However, go over to Amazon and check out the early reviews for the SunComm DRM’d Velvet Revolver CD (called “contraband”). I am not worried about downloaders and sophisticated users… I worry about the regular user… they may just start using p2p where they wouldn’t have to get the tracks in a format they can use.

    (we’ve got a paper coming out on this eventually)

  4. Joe,
    I think you underestimate the creativity of the masses that would be attempting to rip their future protected discs.

    And as been pointed out here before: All it takes is for *one* person to overcome the protection and rip the files. Once there’s an unprotected set of files, it will propagate like wildfire.

    They’ll never be able to close things like the “TOSlink hole” (i.e. solder into a preexisting CD player a TOSlink encoder and transmitter directly onto the outputs into a CD-player’s DAC. Route that optical output into a sound-card with an optical input. An example of a mass produced hack like this is here:
    This one is for XM radio, but the same thing could be done for CD players.

  5. You could imagine if they were to “close the shift-key hole” as they claim they will be able to soon (make the driver unremovable basically but still have the disc play in old CD players), and if they were to only provide the work on a SunComm DRM-enabled CD… that would be significant. The copies on filesharing networks wouldn’t be “perfect” (or nearly so)…

  6. It just goes to show that the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute.” applies to purchasers of DRM technology, too.