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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

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August 14, 2005

I'm Still Not Buying It

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Professors are always on the look-out for the "teachable" moment -- that all-too-rare real-life situation that helps demonstrate an abstract, difficult-to-teach point. That's part of why I was morbidly fascinated to hear about the roll-out of "copy-protected" (DRM-hobbled) electronic textbooks at Princeton University, where Edward Felten teaches computer science while writing -- brilliantly -- about how DRM and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) conspire against learning.

There was no book-cracking, but I was hardly disappointed. Professor Felten took the opportunity to distinguish between simply disliking DRM products in the marketplace (don't buy it) and disliking DRM + law and policy like the DMCA because it interferes with the marketplace (you're screwed). "The problem with DRM is not that bad products can be offered, but that public policy sometimes protects bad products by thwarting the free market and the free flow of ideas," he wrote. "The market will kill DRM, if the market is allowed to operate."

I suppose we can see "the market" at work in the electronic textbook company's decision [PDF] to extend the period of time before the digital ink disappears from these "books" (now you can get a year or more of still-restricted use). I can't get very excited about it, though. The move from analog to digital always seems to mean leaving behind the traditional rights and freedoms that nurture real learning. Sure, you'll pay less for hobbled textbook than you would the real thing, but you also pay less for a McDonald's hamburger than you do for one that's actually good for you.

So we made a little noise about these rent-a-textbooks, and the distributor responded by granting a few more rights -- because it's in that vulnerable roll-out stage where the customer can determine whether or not a product will be successful. Once you achieve buy-in, of course, you no longer have to listen so hard to what your customers want. As I've written here before, that's where Microsoft, the giant of market giants, sits -- poised to make the general-purpose personal computer into an entertainment appliance that listens to Hollywood, not you. Like the hobbled textbooks, it will let you do less. Unlike the hobbled textbooks, it will cost you more. And of course, the implications reach much further.

Over @ Freedom-toTinker, Don Marti had a few thoughtful observations about why Microsoft is moving in this direction. Now, both Fred von Lohmann and Seth Schoen have followed up:

Writes Fred: "Hollywood is saying, loudly and to anyone who will listen, 'unless we get content protection that satisfies us, our next-gen high-definition video will not be on your platform.' Since there are only a handful of major studios who control 90%+ of commercially important film and TV content, this kind of cartel threat is relatively credible.

In the past, this would have been an empty threat, since someone could just build a device to play their content, whether they liked it or not. Not so since 1998, thanks to the DMCA. Now, if Hollywood encrypts its content, tech vendors need to get permission before they can build a device to play it."

Writes Seth: "For Microsoft, the licensing game is a great anticompetitive opportunity because it can use its dominance and mindshare in one area to get dominance and mindshare (and licensing revenue) in other areas, and then keep going round and round with this strategy in subsequent technology generations. A permission-required culture for innovation looks less scary when you're on the inside of the barriers to entry looking out, instead of on the outside looking in."

So what do we do about this? There's no single answer. You can complain (but you may not be heard). You can not buy (but others will). Or you can fight at the law and policy level -- joining or funding organizations that fight to keep innovation and free competition alive. Letting your representative know you don't support technology mandates that outlaw open-source alternatives to permission-culture products. Supporting politicians who fight for consumers' rights. Evangelizing so more people understand what they've got before it's gone.

One thing I learned after posting about what "copyfight" means is how new the movement is for many people. I'm developing a copyfighter's H2O playlist that will help newbies, but in the meantime, if you don't know about them already, here are a few good starting points for the "action items" above:

  • Spots to join the fight to keep technological innovation, free competition, and consumers' rights alive: EFF (my beloved employer), Public Knowledge, and the Free Software Foundation;
  • Spots where you will be able to take action when (not if) a government technology mandate once again rears its ugly head: EFF Action Center and Public Knowledge Issues;
  • And finally, a spot for financially supporting legislators who support consumers' rights, innovation, etc.: IPac.

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Big Thoughts


1. Seth Finkelstein on August 14, 2005 11:23 PM writes...

One problem is that students aren't an ideal free market. I wonder if the company contemplates any element of kickbacks for professors if the professors require students to use the digital/restricted version.

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