Illegal to Plug In – by “Kate H”

Remember these?

My friend still has one of these...

How about these?


Today, the phone market is teeming with options. A consumer can take her pick of smart phone operating systems, if he’s into that sort of thing. Cell phones and phones that connect to landlines come in every color and shape imaginable. Every few months, phone manufacturers release new styles, operating in a market where consumer demand guides innovation. People find their two-year contracts burdensome when new models arrive on the scene.

In such an environment of choice, it’s easy to forget that this was not always the case. As Doctorow reminds his readers, “It used to be illegal to plug anything that didn’t come from AT&T into your phone-jack.” (13) Phones were rented from the companies that provided phone service, and due to a lack of competition, innovations were virtually non-existent. With government supporting the monopoly and other gigantic barriers to entry, consumers were left with very few options, beyond the decision to add a second line.

In this bizarre AT&T advertising musical, the separate beds in the master bedroom are the least of the hilarity. The whimsical housewife dreams of her dream house, sultrily requesting, “I wish I had a stove whose pilot light was always lit… Furthermore, a kitchen phone at hand when friends call to chat a bit!” (Skip ahead to 7:30 to experience this musical gem.)  Later, she croons, “A lady likes to have a chance to change her mind. I might like a yellow room with turquoise and white. And maybe a telephone that lights up at night.” (I’d fast forward to 9:30 for this one.) In reality, in 1956 this leading lady would have had very few options in the case that she decided to “change her mind.” She would have had a limited catalog of colors. If she was lucky, perhaps she’d have the option of renting a princess phone.

Of course, many households worked around the restrictions and set up second lines in their houses, without renting from the phone companies. People will hack. People had more incentive to hack when their only legal option was to pay a ridiculous rental fee for a second phone. Adding an illegal second line was not uncommon: neighbors and friends helped each other to bypass the rental rules.

1983, by government command, AT&T began selling phones to the public, instead of just leasing them. At this time, phones had still not progressed much beyond their original styles.


Clearly this opening of the market was good for the consumer. Clearly this was good for everyone except for the phone companies who could no longer collect monthly rental fees for the use of their phones. It’s easy to see the parallels between the phone rental system and the current practice of using DRM to “protect” intellectual property from illegal distribution.

When I purchase music, videos, software, or other media protected by DRM, I feel as though I am renting the material. At any time, the company who manages the protection on my purchases could go out of business, or restrict my ability to use my property –they claim they’re selling, not renting– in whatever way I choose. Even as a not-so-savvy middle school student, I removed the protection on the music I purchased from the iTunes store by burning discs and ripping the songs back onto my computer. It was easy.

As many have pointed out, trying to protect encryption methods through anti-circumvention laws that restrict people from spreading secrets is both inefficient and ineffective. (And come on, the idea of an illegal number is just funny.)  Hackers will hack. Phone owners will add secret second lines. Middle school students will figure out how to circumvent protection through a simple Google search. Continuing to utilize DRM as such will only serve to anger paying customers. And that’s bad for business.

3 thoughts on “Illegal to Plug In – by “Kate H”

  1. Interesting how you compare purchasing DRM-protected media to renting. I might go even further, and say that all “ownership” of these sorts of non-physical goods is more akin to rental. My ownership of songs and movies is now much more intangible than it was even just a few years ago. Now, I’ll rip or download a DVD to my computer, but delete it (as with songs I don’t really like, etc.) when I want to free up more hard drive space. I have a greatly diminished sense of attachment to these things when I know I can just download them again in the future if necessary.


  2. Makes you wonder if what we’re dealing with these days will seem as outdated as that charming housewife. I think it’s true that people want to feel ownership over what they buy and with ownership comes the expectation of control. Interesting example of how people have never really settled for artificial limits on technology.


  3. Kate, you make a good point about incentives. If people don’t agree with the proposed value of a service or product and there’s a way to avoid the cost then the future of that service or product looks bleak. It reminds me of iTunes’ new pricing. People (mostly) weren’t paying 99¢ for a song, so let’s charge them $1.39. While I don’t know what the iTunes store will be in five years, it seems likely that these prices might follow FairPlay toward the fate of the AT&T controlled phone market.


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