Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Would you like freedom fries with that?

Imagine buying a bed and being told that you were only licensed to use it for yourself and one other person for the life of the mattress. Imagine having to buy sheets and pillowcases only from approved providers and not being allowed to mix and match the linen you already have at home. Imagine being required to obtain permission in writing from the manufacturer before you can, after 5 years or ten, donate the mattress to a homeless men’s shelter or sell it on ebay.

Imagine no possessions. I wonder if you can. Whoops, I just “pirated” two lines from John Lennon’s Imagine. I’m such a bad-ass. Some people think I should be locked up.

What the hell is going on with digital rights? While we’re all doing the chicken dance at weddings, playing World of Warcraft in secret and trying to lose the “love handles’ we acquired over the winter, the so-called entertainment companies are in the process of stitching up our cultures in ways that are beyond imagining. Not content with the innovation and technology bonanzas they have already enjoyed in recent decades, they’re now lunging for even bigger pieces of the pie, overcome with hubris and greed, sure they’re going to win the battle. Sadly though, they’re probably right. At least in the short term.

Consider the recent incident where a fellow called Walter Ritter created a search application called pearLyrics which matched lyrics with mp3’s, displaying the result in people’s iPods as the music played. Great idea. No money exchanged, just another day in Web 2.0 land where creating a tool for the common good is reward enough. And what happens? The goodfellas at Warner send in the hounds to threaten him to stop using his intellect to produce applications they don’t like even though he is in no way tampering with any of their products or services - they are in fact tampering with his right to produce. Why do they do it? Because they have enough money to keep appealing and escalating their case until they win.
As a freeware developer I can not afford to risk a law suit against such a big company, although personally I don't see where pearLyrics should infringe any copyrights handled by them. After all pearLyrics only searches and accesses publicly available websites, displays, and, at the users wish, caches its content. Something that can easily be done with any combination of search engine and webbrowser too.
Or how about Sony, 2005’s number one “digital rights management” (DRM) poster child? Who believed that it was acceptable to - without telling people - include a rootkit on CDs which installed itself onto customer’s hard drives, making those computers vulnerable to hackers and viruses. In a format that was virtually uninstallable. Who then, after being shamed mercilessly by bloggers, released a tool which uninstalled the rootkit but then created an even bigger vulnerability. And so on. So when I read thatSony's rootkit, as bad as it was, isn't the real story. The way the entertainment cartel is applying DRM as a whole is the real story.” I find myself paying attention.

Clearly the Sony rootkit is just the thin edge of the wedge. The article Music industry seeks access to private data to fight piracy describes the push by Sony, Disney and EMI to gain access to the personal communications data – records of phone calls, emails and internet use - of all European Union citizens so that they can take legal action against “pirates” and filesharers. Meaning that they want to augment recently adopted "terror" laws so that "the scope of the proposal" [ie the data collection for counter-terrorism purposes] ...can be "extended to all criminal offences," in this case meaning to those of specific interest to the Creative and Media Business Alliance. That they expect police and other public resources to be placed at their disposal for these purposes gives an indication of how much power they already think they have.

Of course once this particular genie gets out of the bottle, we can wave goodbye to our individual privacy rights, especially in an era where a significant (and growing) proportion of our personal communications are mediated by technologies that are able to record each syllable and pixel. And when you hear that there are 15,000 lobbyists in Brussels alone who are specifically there to push their barrows, it starts to look even more alarming.

As I type, on this thirteenth day of December, politicians in France are deciding whether to ratify draft legislation which includes prohibitions on software that does not integrate both a watermark and DRM, universal wiretapping systems for private communication and universal filtering systems for all ISPs. And if that’s not stringent enough, the so called “department of culture” in the land of libert√©, egalit√© et fraternit√© is threatening to ban free/open source software altogether with "You will be required to change your licenses." … "You shall stop publishing free software". Forgive me here, but I can almost hear the jackboots. Honestly. It’s like something out of Hogan’s Heroes, complete with the terrible German accents. If Bill Gates was at the helm of this particular ship, we’d be calling it antitrust and mounting his head on a wall. And imagine what Satre, Camus or any of the dead intellectuals would make of it all? Quelle damn horreur, I’d say.

"The Xerox machine was the big usurper of our potential income" bleats a representative from the Music Publisher’s Association, “But now the internet is taking more of a bite out of sheet music and printed music sales so we're taking a more proactive stance."

Pirates are stunting software growth!” screams another headline, telling us that “software piracy, rampant and hampering economic growth, is increasingly performed by organized groups regarded as legitimate businesses in some countries...” That the research supporting this view was commissioned and paid for by the Business Software Alliance (BSA), the software manufacturers making this press release, doesn’t seem to make anyone blush. Elsewhere we read that "When countries take steps to reduce software piracy, just about everyone stands to benefit" ... "Workers have new jobs, consumers have more choices, entrepreneurs are free to market their creativity and governments benefit from increased tax revenues." And “The BSA's research, conducted independently by the International Data Corporation (IDC), claims that cutting the current global piracy rate of 35 percent by 10 percentage points over four years could globally create 2.4 million new jobs, $400 billion in economic growth and $67 billion in new tax revenues."

Which, by my reckoning, means that they’re already making shitloads of money. Billions and billions. So I’ve gotta say that these people are really starting to get up my nose with their hard luck stories. Happy to exploit any innovation that serves them or fills their coffers, they become very unhappy when others take advantage of those same innovations. So I’m really not sure who they think they’re appealing to when they say that the study "provides a comprehensive snapshot of what we have known all along: reducing software piracy delivers real results in the form of more funding for education, job training, health care and overall economic growth." As far as I can tell, "we" could also argue there’s no evidence at all for any relationship between increased profit margins for giant media companies and increased government distributions of tax revenue into essential services. Nor do I fail to note their ongoing abuse of the word “piracy” which can only be compared to the rubbery fate of the word “terrorist” in recent times. Do they really think us that stupid? Just because we watch their crappy blockbusters, dance to their pap and buy their plastic merchandise? Apparently so.

But they’re not too bright either, from what I can tell. For a start, they fight all the time. That’s gotta cost a lot in legal fees and may not be so wise in an era where today’s gadget becomes tomorrow’s chip tray. They seem to have no appreciation for history, or the art of the long view. And you wonder why they even bother with all that conflict given that they don't lose sales, it's just the distribution of sales that's affected by file sharing practices. Maybe they saw too many Spartacus movies in their childhoods.

They’re persistent bastards too, using their cheesy Grinch analogies to convince us to buy “real” DVDs instead of those pirated nasties. But what about our freedom not to watch their execrable commercials and product promotions? Who gives them the right to impose those? Haven’t they heard that “no” means no? No. We're told that the "value of content must be understood by consumers so that new business models can evolve. Industry must have legal certainty and the confidence that their intellectual property will be protected.” Legal certainty, no less! Let's just hope that the evolving new business models eventually relegate these giants to the dodo status they deserve.

In the short term they do seem to be doing quite nicely in the new business models department, even without their (insert arbitrary number here)% lost IP through those damned pirates. According to the Sony Internet GroupThe company said it expects to post a 150 percent rise in group net profit to $84.3 million (10.2 billion yen) for the current fiscal year to March on sales of $359.6 million (43.5 billion yen), up 10.7 percent.

One hundred and fifty percent. Profit!

And if you’re still not convinced of the shamelessness of these people who will try to sue the pants off grandparents who commited no crime, live modestly and don't even understand what has happened, consider the latest issue of Forbes magazine (“How Billionaires Live”) where we learn that most of the billionaires featured have made their fortunes through software and entertainment. Such as record executive David Geffen, worth $US4.4 billion, who spent $US47 million buying a house from Jack Warner.

It may surprise you to learn that DRM screws musicians. I would have thought that the most compelling argument for digital rights management would be the "rights" of the musicians or artists. Er, no. That's not generally the focus, even if the notion is sometimes used for its emotional power to induce guilt or generate images of artists starving in garretts. Instead, we find ourselves being herded into increasingly bizarre "business models" such as the McDownload.

Where would Elvis be today if he'd been prevented from borrowing moves and licks from the black jazz musicians? Would Bob Dylan have succeeded without Woodie Guthrie's song structures and archetypal themes, themselves inherited from an earlier time? What about fans and fan sites, the rank and file of the consumer hordes? Will the entertainment companies sue them for exchanging copyright images of their false idols? Even though to most ears their products are a recognised form of torture?

In the many, many words I've already used in this post, I haven't focussed on the role or function of culture itself. Nor have I sailed the rivers of folk songs, stories, images and symbols that have been our collective inheritence for millenia - ours to create, play with, mash up, evolve, reheat, discard and/or rediscover; from the monomyth of contemporary times to the 12 finite notes of the western chromatic scale to the spectrum of colours that are seen in a given age. I've avoided sharing my views on how the commercialisation and commodification of culture has affected our belief systems, behaviours, communities and public institutions. Because it depresses me. And I don't really understand enough about it to really hold forth in a way that is informed, well thought out or original.

Whatever the case, I believe that the legacy of music and art and dance and story that has accumulated in human history is more than a series of "entertainments" to be carved up and bartered. That the current legal "owners" of so much of our cultural inheritance consider it all merchandise says a lot about them. And it's no surprise that so much of the pop culture they generate contains themes about pimps and prostitutes and gangs. Nor that we the audience glamourise these themes. We live in pimpin' times it seems. Think about that the next time you infringe Time Warner copyright by singing "their" song Happy Birthday.

Thanks to lanterna for the bed, bat'n'ball for the music and brainware3000 for McFreaky

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