Friday, May 4, 2012

The different situations of different media, as referenced to their desire for DRM

Science fiction publisher Tor has announced that they will be removing Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) software from all their e-books this year.  This is certainly good news, and should help show the way for other publishers.

It took a long time for the music publishers to allow Apple to sell straight-up unencumbered mp3 music files in iTunes, and it's taken a while for e-book publishers to get the picture as well.  Even non-geeks develop an instant hate for this stuff the first time it keeps them doing something with their purchase that they feel like it is their legitimate right to do, such as moving the file to another device.

Interestingly, people still buy the "unprotected" mp3's and books.   I think they pay too much, but that's a different argument altogether.

The point, I think, is that people use different media differently, and each one has its own issues.

For example, music.  Music is something people listen to over and over again.  How many times do you read the same book?  See the same movie?  I've listened to and enjoyed Hotel California many more times than I've read the Lord of the Rings, or re-watched David Lynch's Dune, one of my favorite movies.

From this vantage, it's easy to see that music is the least amenable to DRM, since I'm extremely likely to want to move a song file to a different device, probably multiple times.  It's probably the media that is least "threatened" by mass copying, for the same reason--it's re-use factor is much higher, and therefore demand for any particular song is higher.

But really the only thing you own there, when you purchase an mp3, I think, is some notion that you own it.  How much should you pay for a notion?

But that notion is undermined when the file is encoded with some iTunes specific code that only let's it work on iTunes and iPods and whatever.  So the customers eventually rebelled and, as I like to think, Steve got his way in the end.  Yes I actually think Steve probably was not a fan of DRM, but just went along with it because it was necessary at the time.  I wonder if I'm wrong.

Anyway.  Books are also something that you may want to move around a lot, at least while you're reading it.  But really, purchasing an e-book is effectively exactly the same as "checking it out from the library", in that the exact same sequence of events occurs: you download it, you read it, you never look at it again.  So where is the sense in purchasing an e-book, in 99% of the cases?  And how about that other 1%, either--what do you "get" by "owning" it?  What is the significance of this particular sequence of bytes existing, in order, on your hard drive?

Just fyi, I'd cheerfully pay, say, a dollar to get a "legitimate" copy of a book I want to read.  Just knowing is hasn't been altered somehow is worth something to me.  But since I will delete it from my Kindle when I am done reading it, I'm hardly going to pay very much for a string of bits.

See, from a computer geek's perspective, an unused string of bytes in memory might as well be an empty string of bytes.  It doesn't matter what value the bytes are set to--if they are ignored, they can have any value they like, it just doesn't matter.  It's a concept known as "buffering".  There is no sense in actually deleting data that isn't being used, as you'll simply overwrite it with the new data as soon as that space is needed.  Actually changing the bytes to zeroes in memory doesn't accomplish anything, so you just leave the old data there until you need the space.  It's called "being efficient with computer resources".

So you see, the presence or absence of data in a computer memory (RAM, hard drive, flash, etc.) has no actual significance whatsoever.  Does that blow your mind?  It blows mine, and I think about this sort of thing a lot.

Once you get used to the ephemeral nature of information, maybe you can understand why it has baffled me for a long time why anybody purchases "electronic media".  I call it a "long string of bytes".  What is it you get for your money?

I'll admit I'm running on intuition, here, and one reason I started this blog was so I would be forced to think things out more explicitly.  I welcome anyone's well intentioned comments, especially if you disagree.

Anyway.  From my perspective, music isn't that hard to make, nor books hard to write.  I really think rather more is made out of these activities--making music or books--than is truly warranted.

Look, I wrote a science fiction novel when I was 19.  It was trash.  But it was a novel-length trash.  And I enjoyed the shit out of writing it.  Every night I sat down with a 40-ounce malt liquor and some dip to write a little more of it--because I wanted to find out what happened next.

The only person who ever read it in its entirety--as far as I know for sure--was my college roommate Brent.  Brent read it, and he said it was the most exciting thing he'd ever read, and it was sheer garbage.  He also said all the characters were me.

I can't argue with that, on any front.  Point being, as much as my book sucked, it was better than a lot of the other trash out there (perhaps not much), and it no more deserves 150 years of harassing innocent users on the internet than does the empty solo cup before me.

Now, to be fair, the movies are a different story, and in some ways the ultimate test of the idea that all non-commercial copying of data should be protected under fair use (and therefore as free speech).  Making even a crappy movie requires many, many man-hours of labor.  It's not just one person mooning in front of his computer for six months or a few years, it's not a band, you're talking hundreds of people and millions of dollars.

Ultimately, it's just a matter of scale.  I think we can all agree that the fundamental morality of copying a book, a song, or a movie, must needs be exactly the same.  If it's theft, it does not matter how much we are stealing.

But I think the logic in favor of copying of music and books "must needs" also be the same for movies.

Nothing I have said in this post has invoked the Final Argument, which is this: "Yes, if Hollywood burns to the ground because of lack of money, if every publisher and author and musician goes bankrupt and no art of any sort was made by anyone, I still consider that it would be better to allow free copying for personal reasons of any and all copyrighted material, in order that the greatest communications tool every made by man should remain forever free."

Yes, really.  It's more important that we can speak.  We can't have people disconnecting each other from the internet for such a small reason as saving Hollywood.

(But do you really think that would happen?)

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