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Friday, October 24, 2008

Gaming community turning against Electronic Arts over bundled DRM, malware

Why is software giant Electronic Arts treating its loyal customers like criminals?

That's a question many gaming enthusiasts have been asking recently following the release of the long-awaited EA title Spore, a game designed by Will Wright (the creator of SimCity) and Maxis (the studio Wright founded, now owned by EA).

Spore, which runs on Windows and Mac, "allows a player to control the evolution of a species from its beginnings as a unicellular organism, through development as an intelligent and social creature, to interstellar exploration as a spacefaring culture," as Wikipedia puts it.

To many (if not most people) that sounds like a fun game.

There's just one problem: Spore comes purposely bundled with invasive, hidden software that installs itself to a player's computer and is almost impossible to remove. The software, known as SecuROM, is supposed to deter unlicensed use by preventing players from making copies of the game.

SecuROM is developed by a division of the consumer electronics conglomerate Sony, which also owns Columbia Pictures and Sony BMG, comprising dozens of record labels (from Arista to Zomba Music Group).

Sony has become infamous for releasing compact and digital video discs that contain spyware or encryption schemes than render them unplayable.

Most notably, almost three years ago, Windows expert and security researcher Mark Russinovich of Sysinternals discovered that a Sony BMG disc he had played on his computer had secretly installed a rootkit (a program designed to seize control of an operating system) deep inside the kernel of his Windows machine, without his consent or knowledge.

Russinovich researched the rootkit and realized that it not only tampered with Windows' normal handling of compact discs, it made any Windows system on which it was installed more vulnerable to viruses.

Russinovich published his findings, and within weeks, a huge scandal and media firestorm was born - fueled in part by Sony itself.

At first, Sony executives tried to simply dismiss the matter, which led to an even bigger public relations disaster. The company then offered a utility to remove the rootkit, but the software utility was defective:
The uninstaller Sony initially provided removed the rootkit, but in turn installed a dial-home program that posed an even greater security risk.

Sony eventually provided an actual uninstaller that removed all of Sony's DRM program from the user's computer.
Sony soon found itself slammed with multiple lawsuits, including a class action suit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and another suit filed by Attorney General Greg Abbott on behalf of the people of Texas.

The Federal Trade Commission also investigated the scandal and announced in January of 2007 that Sony had agreed to settle charges that it violated federal law.

Several months after the FTC settlement was announced, several irate Sony customers discovered that selected DVDs released by Sony Pictures would not not play - even in Sony DVD players! - because of Sony's deployment of a secondary copy prevention scheme called ARccOS. The company was forced to recall a number of DVDs and address the compatability problems.

Weeks later, another malware problem cropped up - this time relating to hardware manufactured by Sony's electronics division.
Security specialists are warning that Sony's MicroVault USB, which is a biometric USB storage device, cloaks driver software in a Windows directory that could be used by malware to avoid detection from security applications.
Because Sony has a long and disturbing history of duping, spying on, and even suing their own customers neither it nor EA can be trusted when they say SecuROM is harmless - as an EA spokesperson tried to tell the Washington Post:
We would never put any spyware on anyone's computers. That's not going to happen.
Wanna bet? Does EA think their customers are stupid?

Does EA brass assume people are totally ignorant of SecuROM manufacturer Sony's history of deceit and lawbreaking?

Gamers, understandably, don't want malware on their computers, and they have responded to Electronic Arts' decision to silently include the software in titles like Spore (without any notice on the box or in the End User License Agreement) by waging a massive online protest.

Thousands of enthusiasts have registered their displeasure by writing negative reviews about Spore on

As of this morning, there are 3,100 reviews of the game - 2,584 of which give Spore one star, the worst rating on Amazon's five star scale.

In comments on countless forums across the Internet, thousands more have committed to boycott the game because of Electronic Arts' bundling of malware. Many enthusiasts have teamed together to create Reclaim Your Game, an anti-digital restrictions management campaign aimed primarily at EA.

Gamers are also angry at Electronic Arts' boneheaded decision to only allow the game to be installed a few times. First it was only three installations total allowed; EA has since raised the limit to five following online protests.

(It could have been even worse - EA initially planned to require the game to authenticate every ten minutes or it would shut down).

One gamer succinctly described the stupidity of this in an Amazon review:
This is actually a RENTAL, not a bought game because it only lets you install 3 times. If you install over 3 times then you must call EA customer support and beg them to let you play the game you bought. Did I mention the call is not free? If you live outside the U.S. it will be a very expensive call.

DO NOT BUY THIS, and if you do buy it keep in mind that you are renting it. Not buying it. Whats really ironic about this is the DRM hasn't even stopped the pirates as it was pirated a few weeks ago. And the pirated version doesn't have Securom or install limits which makes it a better version. EA shouldn't treat its consumers like trash if they want my money.
Digital restrictions management is pointless because there is always somebody somewhere who is bright enough to crack or disable whatever copy prevention scheme the industry can come up with.

Consequently, professional hackers get a fun challenge from the use of DRM while loyal customers are punished... and abused.

That's the case with the hacked version of Spore, which has already been downloaded through BitTorrent over half a million times.

And speaking of abuse, at least one Spore customer - Melissa Thomas - is fed up. She's filed a class action lawsuit against Electronic Arts in U.S. District Court, requesting "disgorgement of unjust profits and damages for trespass, interference, unfair competition and consumer law violations."

The suit contends:
What purchasers are not told is that, included in the purchase, installation, and operation of Spore is a second, undisclosed program.

The name of the second program is SecuROM, which is a form of Digital Rights Management (DRM) for computer games. Although consumers are told that the game uses access control and copy protection technology, consumers are not told that this technology is actually an entirely separate, stand-alone program which will download, install, and operate on their computers, along with the Spore download.

Consumers are given no control, rights, or options over SecuROM. The program is uninstallable. Once installed, it becomes a permanent part of the consumer’s software portfolio. Even if the consumer uninstall Spore, and entirely deletes it from their computer, SecuROM remains a fixture in their computer unless and until the consumer completely wipes their hard drive through reformating or replacement of the drive.
You can read the complete text of the lawsuit at Courthouse News.

It's a shame that Electronic Arts won't acknowledge or admit that the inclusion of digital restrictions management in its products is harmful and counterproductive. Until EA changes it ways, we wholeheartedly support and encourage a boycott of its products, including Spore and the upcoming Red Alert 3.


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