|Friday, December 2, 2005
09:53 - License nerds
Chris sends this link—a site with a great headline and domain, but with an underlying thesis I can't help but disagree with. Predictably enough.
Sony has crossed the line. Years ago, they were leading the edge, introducing cutting edge consumer electronics concepts like the WalkMan, the DiscMan, and the MiniDisc. Now they are infecting your computer with a malicious and dangerous digital rights managment (DRM) rootkit that can cause system instability, open your computer up to viruses, spy on you, and impose ridiculous restrictions on what you can do with your own computer.
All well and good. This is a fine public service. However:
DRM is bad for people. DRM stops users from enjoying their content and frustrates consumers while doing nothing to stop pirates from stealing and selling their digital wares. DRM is the industries' way of saying you no longer own your content when you buy it, but are merely borrowing it.
I beg your pardon, Mr. Anonymous. Maybe some DRM stops users from enjoying content while doing nothing to thwart pirates. Maybe Sony's DRM does that. But I'll thank you not to spread your ideological sanctimony with misleading blanket statements. Some DRM—yes, by which I do happen to mean Apple's—has proven itself to be minimally intrusive to consumers' enjoyment, and to present significant barriers to piracy.
DRM comes in many shapes and sizes. Sony's, which comes on their "enhanced CDs" rather than even being associated with any online download store, is one of the most intrusive forms: it tracks individual playbacks of songs and reports your listening habits back to the mothership. It also places onerous and demented restrictions on what you can do with their digital content installed on your computer. It's unclear that any of it prevents piracy in any way—presumably you can transcode any installed Sony song to an MP3 with freely available tools (I'd be very surprised otherwise). It's indeed one of the most heinous and counterproductive forms of DRM I've yet seen; but there are other kinds too.
Many of the subscription-based online music stores, such as Napster and Yahoo, for example, work on the basis not of counting playbacks, but of a Blade Runner-esque time-to-live feature, usually a month. You pays your monthly fee, you links up your MP3 player to re-validate your account, and you keeps playing your music for another month. Stop paying your fee, stop linking up with the mothership, and your music sighs, "Time to die," and you can't play it no more. But this means you get to freely download anything you want from the store as long as you keep paying your money. This method doesn't track your listening habits, though it certainly could be so used without the consumer's knowing; and as for restricting your enjoyment of music, it's true that it makes you keep paying the rental fee, but the tradeoff is that you get unlimited access to the whole library, which some music lovers might think is just grand. As for prevention of piracy, though, Napster-style DRM definitely has its glaring and unaddressable weaknesses.
But the form of DRM used by Apple, and by most of the WMA-based online music stores, doesn't work like that. You buy your music, you don't rent it—and this means you pay your dollar for each song at the time you download it, so a would-be pirate would have to actually buy the songs before even getting access to them to transcode them. But the price is so low, and the access and quality are so good, that pirates to date have been disinclined to even try to abuse the system the way they would with a booby-trapped CD they had to slog home from the record store. This system doesn't track any playback, because you never have to phone home—the only transaction you make with the mothership for any song is at the time you buy it. To unlock the downloaded music for your computer (and up to four others that you might own), you just make a one-time transaction with the server that is entirely unrelated to any of the music you own—it just authorizes your computer on the basis of its unique hardware ID, incrementing a number-of-authorized-computers counter they've got stored with your account, and once you've unlocked your download account on that computer through the iTunes/QuickTime architecture, you can play any and all music you've ever downloaded using that account, forever. You can then drop off the face of the earth and go live in a Unabomber cabin—the music store never has to hear another word about what music you're listening to or what hot new artists or albums to try to sell you. The transaction's over and done with. You own your song, they have your dollar. That's the end of it.
What's more, Apple—more than the other companies in its position—has actively negotiated with the music industry to win more flexibility for its customers and less onerous DRM intrusiveness. In a deal struck with the labels in 2004, Steve Jobs managed to raise the number of computers that could be authorized to play downloaded iTunes music from the original three (desktop, laptop, work machine) to five. The tradeoff? iTunes was modified to make it so you could only burn seven identical copies of a playlist of downloaded music to CDs, down from the original ten. Now, I ask you, who but a pirate needs to burn more than seven copies of a purchased CD or playlist? And that feature has never been more than a speed-bump in the way of piracy anyway: if you really want to burn more copies of that CD, you just modify or re-create the playlist and keep on truckin'. As "intrusive DRM" goes, that's pretty tiny potatoes.
The upshot is that if you're getting your music from iTunes, you never run up against the DRM in your daily listening life. Never. You just don't. You don't even have to think about "phoning home". Apple never hears a word about your listening habits. And if you're a pirate, well—Steve has this to say:
He confirmed his belief that illegal digital sharing of movies is taking place, but stressed: "There is some evidence that shows people downloading movies illegally wouldn't have bought them anyway."
Jobs believes the best strategy to deal with such problems is to create better legal alternatives to help keep honest consumers honest, and prevent them getting into the habit of stealing: "Hollywood has some time to put in place legal alternatives," he said.
Trust your customers, in other words—just don't make them want to take advantage of you. That'll make fewer otherwise law-abiding listeners into disgruntled pirates in the first place. And by gum, it seems to be working. Besides, hell, you can't pirate an iPod.
SIDE NOTE: I realize that this position is a little bit hard to square with its geopolitical analog, namely that the way to deal with terrorism would be to be nice to would-be terrorists and not give them any reason to dislike you. Using this Apple language to describe our War on Terror strategy would make me sound like Joe Biden or somebody. But that's a separate discussion. For now let's just accept that computers and war are different things for which different strategies might possibly be appropriate.
The authors of this site, though, are tarring all things describable as "DRM" with the "bad for people and other living things" brush. I won't say that this betrays a telling lack of nuance in understanding—heh—but rather that it betrays the kind of "license nerd" mindset that I see underlying a lot of the open-source software community, those people who insist that free software can't be used for any closed-source commercial purpose, as it can under the BSD license but not under the GPL, and who plaster "Creative Commons" logos all over everything and demand that everyone adopt the enlightened terms of their chosen copyright terminology. Flickr is suffused with this mentality, but more as a concession to users who might want to take advantage of it than out of a need to proselytize; but this anti-Sony site, with its prominent "Some Rights Reserved" logo, badges itself as being run by ideologues right off the bat.
There are so many software licenses out there these days that there's one to fit anyone's idea of "ownership"—it takes a special kind of person to really study all the differences between them, and that kind of person is usually known as a "lawyer". But it takes an even more special kind of person to scold a commercial music company for not pandering to people who seek legalese justification for unfettered MP3 trading; and that kind of person is usually known as a "crank".