Thursday, November 04, 2004

Telirati Newsletter #49

Four years ago, the specter of content protection stalked the PC. Four year on, it's still out there, threatening to turn the magic of a general machine into something more like television.

Telirati Newsletter #49: Content protection: diabolical, or just evil?

First, we start with the good things about content protection: (let me know if you come up with any).

OK, now let’s get into what is wrong with it:

Content protection is the end of personal computing. This may sound a bit apocalyptic, but it really only means that the reasons the personal computer is popular could all be extinguished through content protection. The personal computer became popular because it was completely under the control of the individual who owns it. Subsequently, in the name of orderly corporate computing environments and other supposedly worthy causes that control is eroded. But, still, you can purchase a computer, a completely general machine, capable of any function, programmable to any purpose, and control it completely and utterly.

The attractions of this total control range from those based in the philosophical freedom it gives to create forms of information processing that authorities cannot control and that can embody seditious intent, to the rather more mundane blessing of getting one’s work done no matter how inefficient one’s IT department is. Everything from the free choice of digital music formats to the world-shaking possibilities of anonymous digital cash depend on the individual being able to completely control and trust a computing machine.

What happens when you destroy this trust? The PC industry, as it is currently constituted, dies. Forget, if it makes it easier, the moral dimensions of content protection. Content protection is directly inimical to the foundation of the industry and the attraction the customer has to its product.

Content protection is also equivalent to key escrow. Remember key escrow? That cold, clammy feeling of the spook’s hand on your shoulder all the time? Content protection, which must enable your computer to keep secrets from you and rat you out is literally identical to key escrow in its ability to enable Big Brother to take up residence in your computer. Perhaps even worse. The presence of hidden software, undetectable execution and storage, and use of network connections without computer users’ knowledge of such communications can turn the PC into an instrument of surveillance. Content protection is, in fact evil.

But is it diabolical? Yes, if the criterion of diabolism is that it can make intelligent people act against their self-interest. Microsoft, for example. Microsoft is in the process of flushing tens to hundreds of millions of dollars down the toilet in the name of content protection. How? By failing to see that Windows handhelds need a killer app. Well maybe they see it, but they don’t have the will to pursue it.

The killer app, of course, is digital media delivery. Windows handhelds, with the high resolution text and powerful media player, are potentially a very attractive platform for delivery of digital audio and books. So far so good: an application has been connected to product features. Somebody read up on how the Mac’s bacon was saved with desktop publishing. But Microsoft has left out a key ingredient: creative destruction.

If you are old enough, you might remember that desktop publishing destroyed several industries and professions: Page composition workstations, layout service bureaus, and several other crafts and their tools went extinct, or were decimated, by desktop publishing. Almost all publishing today is desktop publishing. Apple was big enough, and the conventional page composition industry and service infrastructure was small enough and invisible to the wider public, enough so that it could be wiped out without much outcry. Microsoft has a bigger challenge.

If Microsoft really wants Windows handhelds to take off it will do this: Instead of playing footsy with the content publishers, seed the content directly. For music, this means allying with a Napster-like service or adding unattended file transfer capability to Windows Messenger, NetMeeting, or some other utility and feeding it with an alliance with or the like. For books, it means directly funding one of the sleepy and underfed public-domain electronic library projects and making sure they can deliver in a Windows handheld-friendly format that takes advantage of the new high-resolution text display technology. Or an e-learning initiative like the one in Cambridge Massachusetts that aims to teach an MIT-level computer science education in one year – free or low-cost college courses in the palm of your hand. In all these cases, however, someone’s ox ends up as the main course of the luau.

The music industry has demonstrated that they are bastards of the first water. Book publishers, while more gentlemanly, nonetheless will not be cheered by a flood of public domain reading material packaged in the hottest new format and delivered by a super-slick Web site. And universities in the U.S. have spent the last two decades raising tuition far faster than costs in general. But the fact is, if nobody gets pissed off at you, it is a sign you are not delivering value. What do you expect? To be able to create sufficient value out of thin air to motivate people to spend $500 on a new and untried tool that already has a history of dubious utility? No, unless take the value out of some other industry, you don’t have a killer app. If you don’t have the will to destroy, you will never create anything big.

The question is: What is it worth? Does Microsoft really want to succeed with handhelds, or are they a hobby? Does Microsoft remember what made PCs an unstoppable force in the first place? Or do they really think they cannot be replaced by a system that respects the customer more than it respects slimy payola-dealing record companies? Is content protection a concept so diabolical it can cause the downfall of an enterprise more illustrious than any that came before, and do it far more surely than a bunch of DoJ pinkos?

The other side of the same coin is that actors, musicians, and authors and others sometimes act as irrationally as makers of digital media hardware: Before there were record labels, almost all musicians had day jobs as music teachers. A small number of elite musicians were subsidized by sponsors. Now, a small fraction of a percent of musicians make a living by selling records, supplemented by commercial sponsorship of concerts, and the concept of “elite” extents to The Backstreet Boys. Even if the “worst” were to happen and record companies went out of business, the effect on musicians would, in the context of their total population, be almost undetectable. As horrible as it is to contemplate that the world might never have heard of Brittany Spears, it is not outlandish to suggest that the diffusion of commercial activity now concentrated on both the deserving elite and the manufactured pop icons out onto the whole real world of music-making might be a net benefit.

Then there is the danger is that the idea of intellectual property could be fundamentally damaged. Laws granting limited protection to intellectual property have fostered an era of wealth creation that was impossible in a time when land and minerals were the only defensible form of wealth and value. Some people believe that intellectual property is so artificial as to be immoral. Some even believe all property ownership is immoral. The record, however, shows that people take care of what they own far better than any form of collective stewardship has ever done. So when abominations like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act do the equivalent of loosing vicious dogs in the neighborhood in order to protect a single lot from trespass, the reaction is to shoot the dogs and hang the landlord. Some time ago we reached a sensible and fair balance between absolute and eternal control over a work of art or literature and the public good of eventual free dissemination. Modern efforts to enlist government in oppressive and unfair schemes that directly contravene established doctrines of fair use only strengthen the hand of radicals who would overthrow property in general. These bad laws also create needless conflict between the nature of the Internet and the personal computer on the one hand, and intrusive laws that create thought-crimes and sneaky and brittle protection technologies on the other hand. This conflict is bad for commerce as a whole.

Far better to let change happen. Far better not to subject the legal traditions of patent and copyright to artificially created stresses since they face sufficient natural challenges. And far better for the shareholder, the musician, and the author for Microsoft, or Palm if they are unwilling, to take up the challenge of digital media distribution in a post-Time-Warner era. Such are the risks and rewards that will create the next great wave of wealth.

Copyright 2000 Zigurd Mednieks.