Sony Could Use Some Humanitarian Advice

Opinion: The company's handling of digital rights management is a bad way of doing business, and Sony seems to believe its customers have no rights.

At the risk of appearing Pollyanna-esque and despite the inherent danger of wading into the rootkit battle, Id like to introduce Sony Corp. to a way of doing business that is apparently new to them, at least if their handling of digital rights management is any indication.

What I am referring to is an amazingly simple ethical test that has been around since 1932.

Your father or grandfather may have heard about it, though its gone out of fashion in recent years.

That could explain how Sony is treating its customers, or maybe its just that technology people consider themselves too much above their customers to worry about non-geeky things like ethical business practices.

So, for Sonys benefit, I present:

The Rotary Four-Way Test, a 24-word statement that, if followed, would make our business dealings must more straightforward and dramatically improve the relationship between buyer and seller. Rotary is a service organization with chapters in 166 countries.

The test consists of four questions:

"Of the things we think, say or do:

1. Is it the TRUTH?

2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?


4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?"

If you can honestly answer "yes" to all those questions, youre probably doing the right thing.

In the case of Sonys rootkit problems, the Four-Way Test applies like this:

Is it the truth? I am not sure Sony is lying, but its not obvious they are telling the truth, either.

One of the problems with technical issues, like playing with the guts of an operating system, is that nuance gets lost when its explained in business English.

Sony needs to answer all of the allegations against it and do so fully and candidly. I think if the company did this, Sonys actions would make more sense.

We might not like them any more, but we could at least have a meaningful dialog.

Is it fair to all concerned? This is a tough one. There is no wide agreement on what "fair use" is, so digital rights management may never get all sides to agree as to whats fair.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about Sony fighting criticism from security analysts.

But, Sony, more than most entertainment companies, seems to believe its customers have no rights. The next two questions put fairness into perspective.

Will it build goodwill and better friendships? If your DRM scheme prevents customers from doing reasonable things with the content they purchase, then its not building goodwill and friendships.

Apples handling of rights for its iTunes Music Store customers isnt perfect, but its made more friends than enemies.

It difficult to see how anything that secretly munges with the OS kernel can possibly build goodwill and friendships, nor could anything that is hard to uninstall, hidden from customers, or spies on customers.

If this is all such reasonable stuff, why is Sony not upfront about it?

Is it beneficial to all concerned? This is a hard one. Limiting piracy is in everyones best interest, though high prices for music and entertainment obviously limit their availability and encourage people to steal content.

At the same time, if this has some benefit to consumers, perhaps Sony can explain. I dont think most consumers support stealing, but they also dont support insensitive, greedy entertainment companies are who behaving badly because the world is changing and they dont know what to do.

Sony, of course, has the further disadvantage of being the single most arrogant company I have ever dealt with.

In my experience, and that of other people I know, Sony has been high-handed, arrogant, and treats even mild criticism as evidence of major disrespect.

/zimages/5/28571.gifRead more here about Sonys efforts to remove its DRM rootkits.

So its somehow not surprising that the company would find itself in a mess like this, wriggling around in a manner that only makes it look worse.

In offering Rotarys Four-Way test, I am giving Sony execs an ethical standard to compare with their actions.

While all of us fall short in our dealings at least occasionally, Sony is so far off-track that I felt a humanitarian duty to point them in the proper direction. I hope they appreciate it, but I wont be waiting for flowers.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at

/zimages/5/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.