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 weve 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 theyre 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 theyre 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.