Archive for June, 2006

Digital Rent-a-Center Management

Tuesday, June 20th, 2006

I make a brief appearance in a DRM protest video noted by Boing Boing today.

Kent Bye did a good job turning his footage into two minutes of watchable video. At least I don’t look or sound as stupid as I could or should have and his choice of backing music is good and appropriate.

One of the opposing comments on Bye’s blog:

As a consumer you have a choice of who to purchase from; and you must abide by the rules set by who you buy from. If you don’t like those rules don’t buy.

In my view the protest was about informing consumers of reasons they may want to exercise their choice to not purchase DRM content. I don’t think anyone was calling for making DRM illegal.

A brief quote about the inability to transfer rights to DRM content was also misunderstood by come commenters. The point I wanted to make is that consumers are getting a substantially different deal with DRM media than they have gotten in the past, indeed a substantially worse deal.

Only desperate or stupid consumers would lease a home theater from Rent-a-Center. DRM media should be seen in the same light.

Valleywag weighs in (flyweight!) with a sarcastic comment:

With all the hoopla in the tech world over trivia like censorship or the turning of political dissidents over to oppressive foreign governments, it’s good to know that this weekend, brave protesters picketed the San Francisco Apple store for that most basic of human rights — the right to play all kinds of music on the iPod.

Yes, plenty of room to talk with recent posts entitled ‘Google bachelor watch: Larry and Lucy “kissy-faced” in Maui’ and ‘Girl sues MySpace because boys are too hot’ … regardless, Valleywag critically misses the point that DRM and more generally copyright are free speech issues. I find the U.S. policy of encouraging intellectual protectionism abroad appalling. If you don’t think such will be used to further censorship in oppressive states (and supposedly non-oppressive ones) you are sorely lacking in the cynicism department. Go read the recent Bruce Perens essay Is DRM Just a Consumer Rights Issue?. I’ll also repeat two of my favorite sentences in the history of this blog under the subheading What Would Brezhnev Do?:

The Soviet Union took information control to extremes, including prohibiting use of photocopiers by scientists. I suspect that had the USSR survived to this day, the KGB would now be furiously trying to make Digital Restrictions Management work so as to gain access to a few of the wonders of computing without permitting open communication.

I could go on for awhile about why DRM is a bad thing, but in addition to the above I must briefly mention that DRM is deadly for long term data preservation, stifles innovation, is a security threat and doesn’t even prevent copying, the fantasy that it could with just the right legal backing leading to regulatory ratchet.

On the specifics of the Apple protest, see Seth Schoen’s writeup.

In closing, another zinger from Tim Lee:

I think the fundamental disagreement here is one about technology, not philosophy. Attaway believes that the flaws and restrictions imposed by DRM are temporary—kinks that will be worked out as more sophisticated technology is developed. If that were true, Attaway’s argument would have some merit. But the reality is just the opposite: as the media world becomes more complex, the flaws of DRM will only become more glaring. DRM is technological central planning. Centrally planned economies become less efficient as they grow more complex. For precisely the same reasons, centrally planned technologies perform worse as they become more complex.

Freedom Lunches

Monday, June 19th, 2006

Another excellent post from Tim Lee (two of many, just subscribe to TLF):

The oft-repeated (especially by libertarians) view that there’s no such thing as a free lunch is actually nonsense. Civilization abounds in free lunches. Social cooperation produces immense surpluses that have allowed us to become as wealthy as we are. Craigslist is just an extreme example of this phenomenon, because it allows social cooperation on a much greater scale at radically reduced cost. Craigslist creates an enormous amount of surplus value (that is, the benefits to users vastly exceed the infrastructure costs of providing the service). For whatever reason, Craigslist itself has chosen to appropriate only a small portion of that value, leaving the vast majority to its users.

As a political slogan I think of as applying only to transfers though perhaps others apply it overbroadly. Regardless the free lunches of which Lee writes are vastly underappreciated.

The strategy has another advantage too: charging people money for things is expensive. A significant fraction of the cost of a classified ad is the labor required to sell the ads. Even if you could automate that process, it’s still relatively expensive to process a credit card transaction. The same is true of ads. Which means that not only is Craigslist letting its users keep more of the surplus, but its surplus is actually bigger, too!

Charging money also enables taxation and encourages regulation. Replacement of financial transaction mediated production with peer production is a libertarian (of any stripe — substitute exploitation for taxation and regulation if desired) dream come true.

Put another way, that which does not require money is hard to control. I see advocacy of free software, free culture and similar as flowing directly from my desire for free speech and freedom and individual autonomy in general.

In the long run, then, I think sites that pursue a Craigslist-like strategy will come to dominate their categories, because they simply undercut their competition. That sucks if you’re the competitor, but it’s great for the rest of us!

Amen, though Craigslist, Wikipedia and similar do far more than merely undercut their competition.

Apple for dummies

Thursday, June 15th, 2006

Apple’s penetration of the geek market over the last five years or so has bugged me … for that long. It has been far longer than that since I’ve read a comp.*.advocacy threadflamewar, so stumbling upon Mark Pilgrim’s post on dumping Apple and its heated responses made me feel good and nostalgic.

Tim Bray (who does not b.s.) answers Time to Switch? affirmatively.

I hope this is the visible beginning of a trend and that in a few years most people who ought to know better will have replaced laptops sporting an annoying glowing corporate logo with ones sporting Ubuntu stickers.

Ghostscript free now

Wednesday, June 7th, 2006

Raph Levin announced that the GPL release of now uses current Ghostscript code.

By switching to the GPL, we’re reaffirming our commitment to the free software world. One big reason for this decision was to reduce the lead time between bugs being fixed in the development tree and users seeing the fixes, especially those users dependent on Linux distributions.

This seems notable, as for years Ghostscript has served as the usual example of the free the future, sell the present open source business model. Previous GPL releases were about one year/one version behind AFPL (which restricts commercial use) releases.

Ghostscript is also notable for having a long running bug bounty program.

Addendum 20060608: The quote above doesn’t address the business reasons for making the current codebase GPL. Perhaps all paying customers are unwilling to release under GPL. If so Artifex would lose no commercial licensing revenue and gain some goodwill and outside contributions and reduce the amount of effort required to do releases of year or more old code.

Regime change agents

Monday, June 5th, 2006

Sameer Parekh:

What’s interesting to me in particular of course is the knowledge that a military strike on Iran would be a bad idea, yet I am training to enter the military and learning Farsi.

Curious indeed.

It is an interesting “feature” of our system that it is possible to train to invade a country, but not really possible to train to assist in a local democratic revolution. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some sort of ‘Agency of Regime Change” that Americans can join if they want to help foster democratic revolution in enemy states.

State-supported Al Qaeda for democrats? Cheap shots aside, I understand some claim that some combination of the CIA, USAID, and the effectively (but perhaps not effectually) act as an agency for regime change. I have no idea how much truth there is in such claims, but it is an interesting idea regardless, for I want freedom for all people, corresponding destruction of all oppressive regimes and celebration of tyrannicide.

As usual I think a government program is a particularly ineffectual and particularly dangerous means to pursue these ends. If the U.S. did have an explicit “Agency of Regime Change” how do you think targeted regimes would respond?

I think it is possible to dedicate oneself to spreading freedom, including encouragement of regime change, without joining a government program. Two people who inspire me (working completely aboveground and presumably with no explicit regime change agenda) are and . Tactics more directly aimed at regime change are easy to imagine. Start a NGO.

Filesharing a waste of time

Sunday, June 4th, 2006

Well over a year ago Sameer Parekh called out an obvious flaw in my argument:

I find it funny when I read technologists arguing that downloads of movies aren’t a problem because they’re slow. When do technologists talk about how technology sucks and isn’t going to improve? When the improvement of that technology hurts their public relations effort!

I noticed Parekh’s blog again recently, which reminded me to respond. I find it interesting (but somewhat tangential) that in the interim centralized web-based video “sharing” ( and many similar sites) has taken off while decentralized P2P filesharing has languished.

Anyhow, I do not argue that P2P filesharing is a waste of time merely because it takes a really long time to download a movie. Even if downloads were instantaneous the experience would be trying. Making it easy and certain for an average user to find a complete copy and find and install the video codecs to be able to watch the copy is not something that improved bandwidth will fix automatically. They are social and software problems, which tend to not improve at the rate bandwidth and similar increase.

In the future when today’s huge downloads are (nearly) instantaneous, they’ll be nearly instantaneous via underground P2P or via centralized download services. The only people who will struggle with the former are the very poor, those who enjoy fighting with their computers, and those who seriously miscalculate the value of their time. Unless the latter are encumbered with DRM so frustrating that there is no convenience advantage to using a centralized service.

By that time I expect most entertainment to be some combination of supercheap, server-mediated and advertising.

Creative legacy insurance

Thursday, June 1st, 2006

Aaron Swartz has a provocative post on creating a legacy. I think it almost impossible to leave a real (by Swartz’s test — leaving the world in a significantly different state than if you had not acted) and good legacy.

Swartz cites simultaneous discovery as evidence that Darwin did not leave an impactful legacy. I think this vastly understates the value of multiple confirmations of a discovery and of arriving at a discovery sooner rather than later. Consider discoveries made or nearly made once, but not widely known nor used for many years. If more people had been working in the relevant fields perhaps the knowledge would not have languished and the world would, right now, be a different place, even if only shifted forward in time. (So perhaps I should not continue to say it is almost imposible to leave a good legacy.)

I do not have a compelling example right now, but countering Swartz’s argument is not even why I’m making this post…

Rather, having been spurred to think about legacy, another reason to add one’s creative output to the commons (e.g., by releasing it under a Creative Commons license) occurs to me: one’s creative legacy.

If you were to die tomorrow your heirs would own exclusive rights to your creative works, possibly forever. If not immediately (likely), then sooner or later your heirs will be unreachable or disagree over the disposition of your copyrights, annihilating your creative legacy. For without permission, your works may not be legally displayed, performed, reproduced, distributed, translated, repurposed, or otherwise used (excepting narrow and increasingly constrained fair use).

Due to unknown or recalcitrant owners your work will go to the grave with you like so much rotting celluloid … unless you choose to give the public permission in advance to use your work, now.