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Whose Side Are You On, Bill?

As everyone has probably heard by now, Bill Gates – in a nod towards the importance of blogs – granted the folks from Gizmodo an interview while at CES. The latest segment – part four – is, to me, the most interesting. In it, he clarifies his statements around “communists” to some extent, which I have to confess I found ill-considered, but only insulting if you view communist as a straight perjorative. Given that the Creative Commons, which we support strongly, does share some precepts with Marx’ system (please note, however, that I am NOT equating the two), I do not. Gates’ opinion, I believe, is based on an extreme and rather unrealistic view of the values that the Commons espouses, and unfortunately he ignores the possibility that alternative financial incentive systems might exist.

But once more, it’s his comments on DRM that I find most disturbing. Essentially, he argues that DRM is a tool – a necessary tool – and it’s not Microsoft’s responsibility for how it’s wielded. In other words, it’s the NRA argument. And consistent with the conversations I’ve had with various Microsoft folks on the DRM subject previously, Gates is quick to evoke a nightmare scenario (medical images, although the one I hear most often is pictures of grandchildren), as opposed to what will be far and away the most common usage, music DRM (kudos to Gizmodo for calling him on it).

This laissez faire approach to the ethics of DRM is where I think Microsoft has fallen down, unlike Apple. Here’s something I wrote back in March:

In many of the conversations we’ve had with software providers and enablers of so-called Digital Rights Management technologies – so-called because many would argue that DRM has everything to do with restricting rights and little to do with guaranteeing them – we often hear the argument that the implementations should be left up to the providers and content distributors. As is their right, software vendors claim that they’re in the business of providing software solutions to meet demand. As content holders are demanding software that will restrict what consumers can do with their content, they are all but required to deliver it, so the argument goes. Fair enough. But we highly encourage all of the software firms developing such technologies to think carefully about who they’re getting on board with, because if the wheels come off, fine distinctions about content providers versus technology providers may get left behind in a hailstorm of consumer backlash.

I strongly believe that’s still the case. Apple, I would argue, is perceived as a friend of consumers not for any technical reason, but because they were the first to persuade big media to adopt more relaxed restrictions. Microsoft, on the other hand, is arguing that it’s not up to us – in Gates’ own words, “Are those authors wrong or right? That’s up to them. We don’t take a position on that.” In other words: big media’s your problem, not ours. Well that may be, but I still believe that the technology firms that take up the fight on our behalf – as Apple is at least perceived to have done – will be the big winners.

To put Microsoft’s lack of a position in context, consider the following: where might we be if Apple was not around, and the only major music software provider was Microsoft? Think we’d still be able to burn CD’s? Or load our music onto multiple machines? I doubt it, because Microsoft doesn’t have a position on that. No wonder Steve Gillmor says thank god for Apple.

Want to win us over, Microsoft? Be our champion. Fight for us. Don’t hand the folks who stole $480 million from us the means to lock us up, and then tell us you’re our friend. Homey don’t play that.

Categories: Digital Rights Management.

  • James Governor

    Readers outside the US might have no clue what the NRA argument is dood. For those that, don't Stephen is referring to National Rifle Association, led by voice of god, charlton heston. http://slate.msn.com/id/27114/

    guns dont kill people, people kill people. (make it easier though, eh?)

  • Only a Flesh Wound

    Sogrady,

    Is your business-analyst advice to Gates that he should pay more attention to a quasi-marxist anti-property-rights perspective, otherwise he will either face consumer backlash or be swamped by winners like Jobs or Gillmor? "Putting the 'red' in RedMonk."

  • http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady sogrady

    i love it – putting the red in redmonk :) very good.

    but no, my advice to bill gates is not to become a marxist, nor release their entire product portfolio under an open source or Creative Commons license.

    instead, my advice is to recognize that when big media gets their way, everybody loses – including big media.

    lock everything down, and consumers stay away. work with consumers, and there's money in it for everybody. remember, big media has at times been against VCR's, CD burning, cable television, televised sporting events, and more.

    their fear often obscures massive financial opportunities.

    here's an entry i wrote a while back with a few examples. http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady/archives/000053.ht

    i might believe Gates would be better off with a bit of open source, but accept that that's unlikely to change.

    but when it comes to choosing between the RIAA/MPAA and consumers, i'd strongly argue that it's in Microsoft's best interests to choose the latter.

  • Only a Flesh Wound

    There is a brief mention of Bill Gates in the classic by Steven Levy, Hackers, written in 1984. Levy (clearly unaware that Gates will become the wealthiest man on the planet) mentions a letter then-19-year-old Gates sent out to the software community decrying the "theft" of "stolen" software "pirated" by those who "don't care if the people who worked on it get paid." I think Gates got it and gets it. A society that doesn't protect property is an impoverished one.

    My wife is a working musician. She isn't Big Media. She reacts viscerally to the thought of her recordings being downloaded for free.

    Theft discourages innovation and invention, suppresses effort and capital formation, and increases risk. It is the enemy of technology, of the arts, and of free people.

  • http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady sogrady

    who said anything about free? i'm certainly for musicians getting paid, which is why i get 100% of my music legally through emusic.com and Apple iTunes.

    don't make the mistake of assuming that this argument around intellectual property is black v white – this isn't capitalism versus communism, as much as some might wish to portray it that way.

    few if any of those who espouse the values articulated by the Creative Commons would argue that your wife's work should be free. musicians – like any other profession – need to get paid for their work, or pretty soon we have no musicians.

    so i think we can easily agree that your wife – and the thousands or millions or other hardworking musicians, and artists, and sculptors, etc – should be compensated.

    but many critics of the Creative Commons assume that money is the only compensation. that – to me – is wrong.

    sometimes you have to give something to get something. much of our content that we spend a lot of time on, for example, is freely available on our blogs. why? because we receive many benefits besides money: marketing, insights, networking, etc. we're not giving our work away for free, but neither are we receiving any cash for this.

    or, to make it closer to home, if your wife offered a sample track or two for free for downloading, i might get hooked and buy some of her music.

    at RedMonk we have that distinction, b/c we have free content (blogs and selected papers) and paid content. we're not landed gentry – we need to pay our bills like anyone else.

    ultimately, i don't think we disagree on all that much.

    we both agree that artists should be paid – although we may differ on what form that compensation takes.

    we both agree in intellectual property – we just differ on how closely it needs to be protected.

    and as far as DRM goes, i live with what iTunes requires. i don't like it, but i can live it.

    my point, however, was that if it were just up to Microsoft, big media would have the control that they wanted, because Microsoft views themselves as just a provider of tools. DRM is just like a hammer or a screwdriver to them; they seem to not view it as a technology with frightening implications for their massive installed base.

    well, maybe you can deal with it, but the RIAA/MPAA kind of DRM i can't live with. and i'm not the only one. if i've legally purchased music, for example, i believe i have the right to create my own burned CD. it was only once the record industry loosened their grip – only slightly – that Apple's iTunes has sold a few hundred million tracks (with around 70 cents of each dollar going to the record industry), and opened up a massive new market. a new market bringing new dollars to the same artists we all want to get paid.

    the lesson for me? nothing here is black/white. it's all grey. that's where i disagree with you, as i don't think Gates will accept that. absolute DRM control is in my mind a bad thing, and perhaps a DRM-less world for you is a bad thing. so we probably need to meet somewhere in the middle. i think Apple's got us going in that direction.

  • James Governor

    putting the Red in RedMonk. nice: http://www.redmonk.com/jgovernor/archives/000404….