In an earlier post I described how MediaMax, a CD DRM system used by Sony-BMG and other record labels, behaves like spyware. (MediaMax is not the same as XCP, the technology that Sony-BMG has recalled; Sony-BMG is still shipping MediaMax discs.) MediaMax phones home whenever you play a protected CD, automatically installs over 12 MB of software before even displaying an End User License Agreement, and fails to include an uninstaller.
Part of the software that MediaMax installs is a driver meant to interfere with ripping and copying from protected discs. I had believed that MediaMax didn’t permanently activate this driver—set it to run whenever the computer starts—unless the user accepted the license agreement. As it turns out, this belief was wrong, and things are even worse that I had thought.
In the comments to our last MediaMax story, reader free980211 pointed out that the driver sometimes becomes permanently activated if the same protected CD is used more than once, even if the user never agrees to the EULA. This wasn’t apparent from my earlier tests because they were conducted under tightly controlled conditions, with each trial beginning from a fresh Windows installation and involving only carefully scripted operations. I’ve performed further tests and can now confirm that MediaMax is permanently activated in several common situations in spite of explicitly withheld consent.
When this happens depends on what version of MediaMax is being used. An older version, called CD-3, was introduced in 2003 and is present on albums released as recently as this summer. There is also a newer version, MediaMax MM-5, which has been shipping for a little over a year. You can tell which version is on a CD by examining the files in the disc’s root directory. Albums protected by MediaMax CD-3 contain a file called
LAUNCHCD.EXE, while MM-5 albums include a file named
When you insert a CD containing either version of MediaMax, an installer program automatically starts (unless you have disabled the Windows autorun feature). This installer places the copy protection driver and other files on the hard disk, and then presents a license agreement, which you are asked to accept or decline. In the following scenarios the driver may become permanently activated even if you always decline the agreement:
- You insert a CD-3 album, then later insert an MM-5 album
- You insert an MM-5 album, then later insert a CD-3 album
- You insert an MM-5 album, reboot, then later insert the same album or another MM-5 album
These steps don’t have to take place all at once. They can happen over a period of weeks or months.
This is bad news for people who like to play CDs in their computers. Many users are unaware that their CDs contain MediaMax until the license agreement appears on their screens, but by this time it may be too late to stop the driver from being permanently activated. Even if users are careful to decline the EULA every time, the circumstances when the software becomes active anyway are common enough to be practically inevitable.
This may be an annoyance to music fans—unless you disable the driver, you’ll have a hard time playing any MediaMax-protected titles, let alone copying them to your iPod—but it’s also a security risk, since the driver is loaded as part of the Windows kernel and has the ability to control virtually any aspect of the computer’s operation. We don’t know whether the MediaMax driver contains any vulnerability that can be exploited to do further damage, but the way it is installed creates a dangerous precedent.
Is this behavior illegal? It should be. Installation of system level software where the user has explicitly denied permission raises serious security concerns and is wrong.