Leasing Ourselves Away – by “Sabina M”

Using and demanding more DRM-free services like recently launched UrFilez or Ovi Music will make you not only 300% cooler, but a responsible citizen.

Imagine this: sometime during the night, half your books have been pillaged. Not by vikings, but by Barnes & Noble.

Imagine this: law enforcement shows up at your doorstep. You have attempted to glue Lego to your science fair project (or hair) – but Lego has very strict ideas about how, where, and for how long Lego can be used.

Imagine this: you have taken apart your CD player to figure out how it works. You do – and you even figure out a way to make it sound better, and maybe be used for time travel. Naturally, you show all your friends how to repeat this miraculous feat. Shouldn’t have done that: get ready to drop the soap.

Maybe the examples are a bit hyperbolic. Or maybe they are all too realistic, if used as an analogy for how the products we purchase digitally are protected by both copyright law and DRM (digital rights management) technologies. Last year, DRM “protection” was the backdoor that made possible the Amazon deletion of eBooks from customers’ Kindles (because the “digital age” is an ironic one, it had to be 1984 – so funny that it’s not). DRM is being used to prevent you from playing movies, music, and games or using software on just any machine or number of machines: on just any operating system (read: anything beyond Apple or Microsoft); in any geographical locality or for any amount of time.

When it comes to digital goods, we have implicitly come to accept the idea that we cannot do just whatever we want with the products we have purchased – and perhaps even more worrying, that we can never truly own digital media. We have accepted, perhaps without being aware of, the fact that we are only renting it and so have to submit to any specific conditions the provider specifies, including the possibility of having our product deleted or made less functional at a whim.

Don’t even think about tinkering with your new copy of, say, Microsoft Office Word: and if you do, do not share your discoveries with anybody. Although tinkerers – or people unwilling to be held hostage to a specific service provider – have recently won a small battle this past summer as such alteration was extended legal permissibility (if not permanent protection) when it comes to phones, the fundamental issue remains. Legal bright spots aside, DRM technology explicitly aims at making the cracking of the proverbial CD player near impossible, even at the cost of practicality. Imagine the CD player, telephone, or Lego blocks of your childhood being 20 pounds heavier just so you couldn’t use them in weird ways: imagine your CD player working less well or ceasing to work altogether if it suspected you were using it in non-correct ways (and then imagine it did this anyway: see the Spore case), all as a trade-off in the name of being more difficult to tamper with.

We (us nerds anyway) instinctively find something unnerving about the idea of someone stealing or blacking out large parts of our books, of the CD player company preventing us from tinkering with our bought property and using police as their proxy – basically, of someone watching over our shoulder when it comes to what we do with the things that are our own. In contrast, the response seems much less visceral, and much more confused, when we talk of DRM. And there are some perhaps justifiable reasons for this ambivalence: but, mainly, a terribly bad one, namely the idea that digital products are, and should be treated as, fundamentally different. For who? For the companies.

After all, is it not the right of developers to keep their code a secret? In this lies part of the crux. With software, the ideas and design are the product. Furthermore, many of these “new” types of products – that is, digital media – are increasingly being couched within a larger framework of a continuous and larger service (see iTunes, Amazon’s Video on Demand, Blizzard’s online RPG).

One way to think of this dilemma and why it came to be so dilemm-ish is this: you could take apart a CD player, sure, knock yourself out – but you could not, in practice, by yourself, replicate the finished product and so displace the monopoly the production company had on designing, manufacturing, and delivering that product to you. If that had been possible, tampering with the interior workings of tech products would have become an issue far earlier – in the digital ownership of digital products, it is all too easy to threaten the profitability of a product by making the company obsolete as a supplier (or sole developer, as the case sometimes is when protected software is cracked in order to be enhanced and, inevitably, spread).

There is undoubtedly truthiness to these facts. Yet surely we can all agree that there are concessions that are unacceptable, even in the name of protecting the economic viability of software companies, when those concessions concern the basic rights of being human – of being curious and inventive – and the basic rights we associate with democracy, namely those of free speech and perhaps to private property. These questions must be asked regardless of how unpleasant the answer might be to commercial interests. (And with DRM, it might not be so at all: it is unclear just how beneficial DRM protection has been for companies, all considered).

As someone with an unhealthy relationship with the Internet and nerd culture, I am squarely on the side of copyleft, open source, creative commons, and so on. But I do not want to ignore the fact that companies are inhabiting a very peculiar space when it comes to purely digital products. If before it was no biggie to lend my SNES game to my neighbor, today it is – because my neighbor next door has suddenly become the entire internet-browsing public. Free speech in the sense of spreading an idea, lending a creative work, instructing others in how things work even when companies would rather we not, discovering and tampering with code (which I would argue rightly deserves to be defined as speech) – yes, free speech and tinkering has become complicated for everyone involved. But this does not mean we must compromise it to the tune of private corporations too worried about their short-term profit to realize the long-term consequences of the laws and practices they have begun to implement and entrench into society as a de facto necessity.

My heart weeps for these producers, or at least sniffles because my head tells it to, but it recoils at the idea of DRM and its supporting social, legal, economic structures evolving further in the direction it has. What do I mean by social and economic structures? I mean the slow transition we are witnessing from physical to digital product: our thinking of digital products as not-quite-goods: the lack of uproar over how the key cultural and other products of our age are coming to be accepted as simply services, things we use on a lease and with a leash.

The heavy media giants – companies like Sony, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon – have begun to construe many of their products as services, period. Services are subject to change. Services can be terminated. And so it comes to be that only the bookstore of a fascist state can enter your house and steal your books in the middle of the night, while Amazon can do so in broad daylight. As Amazon customers that had their Kindles “bricked” (in an ongoing debacle separate from the 1984 deletions) can testify, simply purchasing an eBook is no guarantee for keeping it.

I own an impressive amount of useless TV shows through Amazon on Demand. Yet, if I want to watch them, I have to make sure not to leave American soil: licensing issues. Hopefully Europe will sort those out some ten years down the road, but the point is, Amazon has without warning taken away my right to use these purchases of mine because they deem I do not have the – apparently far more important – right to digitally watch them beyond the U.S. So what then? Do I purchase every episode all over again, but on a DVD? Why are digital copies of an episode more acceptable to, in effect, control the content and presentation of than physical ones – mere practicability is not it (and one might well wonder when DVDs will begin to have automatic IP blocking and such, also).

The issue seems to lie more in the aesthetic feeling of digital goods somehow being fundamentally different in every single way: it is almost as if a digital product is not real. “That’s ridiculous, nobody can take back my purchased DVD” versus “Hey, Amazon is blocking me from re-watching the Battlestar Galactica season finale, I guess that’s just how it works”.

It only works this way because we let it: and my point is, we shouldn’t. We can’t allow the law to codify our digital goods, especially expressive ones, as second-class expressions or property. Yes, we can buy a hard copy of a DVD. But in – twenty? Ten? Five? years from now, will hard copies still be there? Probably not. But we would still be stuck with legislation that presupposes a digital book does not deserve the same protections against theft and censorship the “real” equivalent does. This is what DRM is: anti-license to do whatever to your goods, but also anti-protection against what the private company you got it from can do to it in turn – remove, censor, alter. And the problem stretches not only to purely digital or software goods: PS3 has removed features from already-bought consoles, remotely (like prior support for Linux). With the internet, boundaries between hardware and software are thinning.

Take a look at Sony’s license agreement:

Some content may be provided automatically without notice when you sign in. Such content may include automatic updates or upgrades which may change your current operating system, cause a loss of data or content or cause a loss of functionalities or utilities


You may not sell, rent, sublicense, modify, adapt, translate, reverse engineer, decompile, or disassemble any portion of the Property. Except as stated in this Agreement or otherwise expressly permitted by SCEA in writing, you may not reproduce or transfer any portion of the Property. You may not create any derivative works, attempt to create the source code from the object code, or download or use any Property for any purpose other than as expressly permitted. You may not bypass, disable, or circumvent any encryption, security, digital rights management or authentication mechanism in connection with Sony Online Services or any of the content or service offered through Sony Online Services.


Do things look this cyberpunkly bleak only to the people that really, really care about full control of their software and media? While not all of us may feel this to be a great threat to democracy, it very well might become if we do not begin debating this issue on a level more profound than “WTF $ONY DONT L3T ME HAVE LINUX…. >>” or “APPEL WHY DOES MY CELINE DION MP3 NOT WOERK SOMETIME”. Our society has changed. We cannot just shrug it away and assume the free market will take care of everything, that we will end up with well-functioning, reasonable DRM and copyright policies. Companies are, by definition, for-profit entities that have no incentive to think ahead and take principles of democracy into consideration. They want to make money, and keep making money. Why should we allow private corporations to dictate the terms of our future relationship to the culture and technology we come into contact with?

Don’t click away your rights. You are human, or possibly a transhumanist. The only thing that makes man better than a monkey, even when the monkey is cuter, as is the case with many nerds, is our curiosity: our ability to learn, then take the knowledge we just gained and build upon it. So the next time you’re skipping through a license agreement, take the time to read it: because we need to have the sanctity of the bookshelf, we need the freedom to tinker, and we should never compromise away our right to share knowledge, however threatening to commercial interests.

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