Thursday, August 6, 2009

Who owns what

There's an interesting debate occurring around the concept of imaginary property. Physical goods lend themselves to an easy understanding of ownership, primarily because transferring an object from one person to another necessitates the first person losing possession of it. With media, however, that situation changes.

Emailing you a song in no way degrades my own copy. Similarly, ITunes can sell thousands of copies of a song with essentially no marginal costs. Is the song still property? Companies think so, and consumers seem to as well, albeit in different guises. The entertainment industry wants to be able to restrict you from redistributing the content they've “licensed” you. The consumers are a less homogeneous group, but there does seem to be a desire to be able to keep a product they've paid for, and sell it when they're done.

As a society we're riding out the inherent discrepancy between what technology allows and what a seller wants. Reselling a traditional product undercuts the original producer, but marginally, as each consumer can only perform the act once per product. Even if a company wants to stop resales, there's a pragmatic difficulty to it: they aren't involved in that transaction. Traditional crimes, like theft, murder and rape, have a victim actively involved in the crime. Copyright infringment is like anti-sodomy and drug laws, in that a third-party demands a transaction between two other people stop.

I've noticed in articles pointing out a problem with DRM (technology that prevents you from using electronic products in a way the producer doesn't like) a lot of musicians have started positing comments. They'll argue that this is their job, and that they need DRM so people will buy their product.The example that sparked this post included the comment that I was a stranger, so he didn't trust me, so that's why he needed to put DRM around music he produced.

I realized that that was fair, but that I didn't trust him either. And its not him, specifically, its the record company who's representing him. Microsoft and Walmart (among others) have both sold people music and promptly decided they didn't want to support the servers necessary to ever change computers or upgrade your OS without losing every song you bought. Amazon's Kindle had the technology to read aloud to the blind which an Author's group made them disable. Amazon retains the rights to delete books you've purchased through them. And if you fall outside of the rules on content you could face a $1.92 million fine or potentially 10 years in prision.

Those are really just a small sample of cases where DRM or the DMCA have been used to cause real harm. Shady companies, generally large ones, have been using them as tools to harm consumers. There's finally some degree of consumer backlash brewing, and it will probably harm independent musicians who just want to make a sale. But unfortunately, the alternative of accepting a contract where the product I just purchased can be taken away tomorrow is just poor business sense on my part. I refuse to buy any products a company can remotely disable. If a company would just guarantee lifelong access and access to a secondary market, I would be happy to embrace that DRM, and we could move forward against piracy. But as far as can tell, that's not what the entertainment industry wants.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Way to tackle DRM in your first official post! This is going to be fun.

    Maybe you could write on how they come up with the crazy "words" one needs to type in when commenting on a blog, for example, to ensure that one is not a spambot. Where do they come from?!? Is there some chinese man sitting in an office somewhere coming up with groupings of letters that appear to be words in English, or are they from some archaic, unabridged oxford dictionary? Your thoughts, please.

  3. For example, I just had to type in "antert" and before that I type in "averness". WTF!

  4. Suctades to that, it's just averness on the part of Google. They're just jealous of my pet antert.