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March 24, 2005

Thinking more about PyMusique

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

I'm unhappy with the kind of reportage we've seen on this situation. For the most part, reporters such as John Borland have positioned it as a "war" between little-guy hackers and big companies - in this case Apple. There's talk of "back doors" and such. All of it is posited in adversarial terms.

This combat coverage misses a deeper point. Ed Felten has a better analysis in his blog, but he stops at the boundaries of this situation. I want to go at least a little farther.

I think there are clear parallels here between what the individual vendors of DRM-encumbered digital media are doing and, for example, the fight over the broadcast flag. As in that case, what we have is one group (vendors, Hollywood) trying to exert or extend control over what another group (consumers, electronics industry) does in the way of new and innovative uses. One side has its model (terms of service) for how things ought to be done and anything outside of that model is treated as a threat to be countered. The reportage I complained about earlier only feeds into this meme.

Posit a different scenario, one that might be headlined "iTunes recognizes new revenue stream." Instead of trying to force everyone to use only their client (which is, as far as I can tell, not a revenue source in and of itself), Apple could welcome any compatible client that helped people buy music from their store. Look, for example, at the Web services interfaces that Amazon has published.

What Amazon has said is, effectively: "We don't know all the possible ways to promote our products; come up with something that works for you and we'll be happy to collect the income." This is the source for interesting hacks, too, like the AmazType page I blogged last week.

I think what we're seeing is, in part, fallout from a campaign the Cartel began last decade to control the language and thought processes around digital expressions and aintellectual property. Sharing became "piracy"; copying became "theft"; copy rights were elevated to a level equal to or even above physical property rights. We're now in a situation in which it's nearly impossible to put forth positive, cooperative, or even innovative approaches. Positions have hardened, millions of dollars have been spent, lives have been upended, laws have been passed. Even the educational system has been recruited to reprogram potential future free thinkers.

But all wars have to come to their ends, including the Copyright Wars. I feel it is incumbent on us to extend our thinking and promote - at least once in a while - the notion that there are peaceful, mutually beneficial ways through these issues. I am continually reminded of Gibson's dictum that "the street finds its own uses for things." No matter what technology or innovation we put out today, tomorrow's children will use it for things we've not thought of, in ways we haven't imagined. I think this has been true for all of human history and nothing the Cartel or Apple or any other large organization does is likely to change it much.

My guess is that PyMusique will go down as another tempest in a teapot and be forgotten in a few months. Longer term, though, we will still have to find ways to make a truce and a cease fire and eventually a peace. I don't have any grand ideas of how to do that, but I have an unshakeable conviction that it has to happen.

Comments (8) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Big Thoughts


1. Donna Wentworth on March 24, 2005 1:24 PM writes...

Hmm. I have more to say on this, but can't linger today.

I will say this -- you write, "Posit a different scenario, one that might be headlined 'iTunes recognizes new revenue stream.' Instead of trying to force everyone to use only their client (which is, as far as I can tell, not a revenue source in and of itself), Apple could welcome any compatible client that helped people buy music from their store."

Apple isn't really selling music. It's selling a "convenient" distribution method and iPods (and Shuffles, etc.). The client is a "revenue stream" because it helps lock customers into that distribution method while locking competitors out. The street may find its own uses, but Apple believes it's got to blockade the street.

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2. Dr. wex on March 24, 2005 1:48 PM writes...

You're right, and that's why I would title my science fictional post "new" revenue stream. Apple's money-makers are clearly the hardware gizmos and you make a good point that the client pushes people into the gizmos Apple wants them to use. Letting people play iTunes-purchased music on Linux isn't part of that model. But that doesn't mean Apple can't also make money in this new way. If they would approach this situation with the attitude of "how can we make this mutually profitable" instead of "how fast can we shut this down" then I think we'd all be better off.

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3. Donna Wentworth on March 24, 2005 2:06 PM writes...

Gotcha. Spot on. Larry Lessig has a nice post today that touches on that theme:

"I met [Yahoo's] senior management last October. They had, imho, precisely the right vision of a future net. Not a platform for delivering whatever, but instead a platform for communities to develop. With the acquisition of Flickr, the step into blogging and now this tool to locate the welcome mats spread across the net, that vision begins to turn real."

In other words, use the Net to sell what happens on the Net. It's not a vending machine, and you'll make (even more) money if you recognize that.

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4. Dr. wex on March 24, 2005 4:18 PM writes...

Yeah, I may not always agree with Lessig but I think we need more big thinkers like him around this debate. I agree with the fundamental point too, and I point to Cluetrain ( as one of the first places I read this notion of market as conversation. I'm pleased to have been one of those first "few thousand" signatories.

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5. tf on March 24, 2005 7:22 PM writes...

They could also lose all their contracts with the Studios. Wouldn't that be a lovely way of losing hundreds of millions?

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6. tf on March 24, 2005 7:24 PM writes...

And they could also lose all their contracts with the Studios. Could just as easily be a way to lose hundreds of millions...

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7. TomCS on March 25, 2005 1:50 AM writes...

I agree that the current discussion is frustrating because it seems continually to fail to engage with reality. Can I offer another, relatively simplistic take, again stepping back from the current casus belli.

Essentially, we are dealing with new disruptive technologies in the licensed recorded music delivery business. This is not new: the blank cassette and double slot cassette player/recorder in its own way posed very similar problems a few decades ago, and led to a range of compromise deals in different jurisdictions designed to retain the rights owner interest in avoiding or at worst benefitting from (e.g. through a blank media tax) the additional capacity for personal purchasers to duplicate what they bought on the "new media".

Naturally and not unreasonably the rights owners (a term which I use to include everyone from the librettist to the sleeve note author, or their successors in title) want to retain as much as they can of the previous model.

At present, we have two disruptive technologies. They are fundamentally different, but the rights owners may have difficulty distinguishing them because they multiply the challenge to their business model. The first is the CD/DVD writer, really only available to the average music buyer for 2-3 years. This is however little different in principle (though the quality of the resulting copy is much better) from the cassette (or later the recordable mini-disc), and could in principle be handled the same way.

The second is on-line "intangible" purchasing, and by extension, on-line/internet secondary distribution. This again is new technology, and enabled both by the sudden drop in price of large hard drives, and the rolling out of broadband. The rights owners are trying out a number of "acceptable" options, including the iTMS relatively soft DRM, and the harsher MS version, which open the new delivery channel as a revenue source, in particular against the P2P alternative, but retain as far as possible the licensing restrictions which have always, in theory at least, limited re-use, duplication and resale of recorded music bought for personal use. They are behaving rationally, and do not deserve the vitriol that has been poured over them.

So where do we as consumers go from here? There is a case, given what we know of their use, for accepting a rights fee on large hard drives in consumer PCs and laptops, and on CD/DVD burners and media, on the model of the response in some jurisdictions to the cassette, though I believe the Canadian courts have struck down a Canadian levy on some or all of these: I cannot recall the argumentation.

The on-line technology is more difficult. As a newer - even still emerging - technology, there are still different technical models, driven by or reflecting different business models. It is interesting that the most successful purchase model to date, the Apple iTMS/iTunes combination, is not apparently primarily driven by the aim of generating significant revenues to the operator from the retail sales stage, whereas all the competitors would seem to need to be able to do so, and most of them see it as an extension of their other e-sales activities.

Apple have made no secret that at least initially they see iTMS as a way to drive sales of iPods, (and under the halo effect Apple computers) which may be why they have not given the development of a Unix/Linux port a high priority. That may not continue to be the case: there must be a saturation point for iPods in the not too distant future, or at least a flattening of the curve, which may make Apple decide to treat iTMS as a separate profit centre, which might in due course produce the logic of options for other OS, and for other players. Or not: if iTMS/iTunes becomes the VHS of online music sales and handling, they may decide they do not need to. But essentially this is a technology in evolution issue: the street will decide.

So I see the legal side of all this as relatively unimportant, compared with the technical. The rights owners will continue to protect their licensing model as best they can, and unless we consumers can think up a more internet-specific solution which offers the industry a reasonable revenue stream from on-line sales, there is little case for protesting. The consumer interest is in encouraging the greatest practical flexibility that can be achieved, and the concensus seems to be that Apple, unless it becomes much more restrictive, is offering a reasonable licensing model for the broadband, CD burner era. Again, has anyone got a realistically better version? Does your concept of selling what happens on the Net help here, Donna?

Where is PyMusique in all this? I agree that it is marginal, and probably short-term. Apple might be well advised to offer a rapid Linux port which does support their DRM, thus removing the ostensibly legitimate aim of Jon and his chums: if they are in a hurry, much of the work has probably been done for them. If the developers continue to refine a multi-OS PyMusique, then this is clearly an attempt to evade a legitimate DRM system, and legal remedies may become relevant. Under this analysis, Donna, Apple are not blockading the street, they just havn't set their road crew onto the *nix sub-division yet, and may not until they have sold off the other lots. So a little patience may also be part of the solution.


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8. daisyraven on March 25, 2005 8:03 AM writes...

Whoa! As an Apple/Mac user from 1984 forward I feel for Apple. That said, it was their decision to run on the UNIX base which has allowed this to happen. Yes I love OSX, but in basing it on UNIX, Apple has invited a whole new user dynamic to the table. I have just started learning Python, and it has shown that it can be useful. Apple must realize that there exists people well versed in the UNIX language, and its progeny, who know as much as they do. Hacks and manipulation of the code cannot be fully eliminated. Anyone who has been getting something for free will rebel against having to pay for it. Steve Jobs created legal music downloads, but even "Himself" could not have believed it would be easy.

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