August 18, 1999 5:45 PM PDT

Windows Media hits sour note

A day after Microsoft released its new Web music technology, the company confirmed that crackers have already developed a program to skirt the security behind it.

Microsoft acknowledged that the executable file, dubbed "unfuck.exe," exists and works. In fact, there are a number of programs, such as Audiojacker, that perform similar functions.

"This one just has a glitzier name," said a Microsoft spokesman, adding that that the company will work with the industry to address security issues.

Normally, only the user who downloads and pays for a song encrypted in Microsoft's Windows Media Audio 4 technology can listen to it. But with the new exploit, someone who pays for the song also can email it to friends who want to hear or copy it.

The program works by rerecording musical tracks in an unprotected format. To take advantage of the program, a would-be pirate has to buy and download music. During the downloading process, the executable intercepts the music and reformats it into a different format that doesn't have embedded security elements. Copies can then be made freely.

The Microsoft spokesman steadfastly denied that these ways to get around the security features constitute a bug or flaw in the code. At the same time, however, the spokesman conceded that these programs clearly get around Microsoft's security features, and that, moreover, Microsoft knows that these programs work. He would not say whether Microsoft is actively working on a "fix" for the problem.

Windows Media Audio is Microsoft's answer to the numerous audio compression formats that have gained popularity in the last year. These technologies allow users to download music off the Web and play it back. MP3 is one technology that has gained considerable popularity.

Although piracy is theft and represents lost potential revenue, observers say the record industry has historically overplayed the threat. Pirated copies of software or music, especially among hobbyists, will always crop up. Recently the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the major U.S. record companies, has acknowledged this publicly.

"We'll always have piracy of cassettes and CDs, for instance, with the flea markets or street vendors. That will never go away, and I think the same will be true of the Internet," Hilary Rosen, chief executive of the RIAA, said in an earlier interview. "But we're going to see an explosion of legitimate music online. And consumers are going to have an alternative. I believe consumers will want the alternative."

Some analysts agree that consumers tend to gravitate toward buying legitimate copies.

"The piracy threat is a bit overblown at the present time," said Mark Hardie, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "There will be levels of piracy that will be unavoidable...You will always have code somewhere in cyberspace that will hack through encryption."

He added that it is easier to trace the source of pirated copies of digital music than copies made from traditional methods of recording. That means it likely will be easier to stop illegal copying in the future than it is today, he said.

Windows Media is a group of technologies for multimedia playback. Besides Windows Media Audio, the package includes Windows Media Player and software and services including Windows Media Services, Windows Media Tools, and a software development package.

The Windows Media Audio exploit was first reported on the pro-MP3 Dimension Music site.

 

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