James Governor's Monkchips

On Shel’s Dell, or Will DRM attack free speech?

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This is a funny post by Shel Israel. Beware the Curse of Dell. I have also noticed that when I criticise a vendor its software starts acting up… should I be wearing a tin foil hat?
Lets think a little though about inbalances between vendors and customers, and the kind of contractual constraints we routinely “agree” to. Bear in mind you don’t actually need to agree to agree, just put a music CD in your machine and that’s making a contract.
If vendors could install a kill code on your machine or in your software, I think its safe to assume some would write it into the end user license agreement that any public criticism would give the vendor the right to kill your machine or software or media content. I honestly believe this idea is not so far fetched.
This is an industry where digital restrictions management (DRM) has become an absurdist Borgesian dream. The Sony Rootkit Fiasco brought some of the issues into megawatt relief: according to Sony’s license agreement, for example, if you become bankrupt you forfeit your rights to listen to the music. 
Vendors routinely use contracts to deny customers the right to publish internal benchmarks about software. Is a kill for critique clause really so unlikely?
Bear in mind, that the introduction of hardware and software combo Trusted Computing Platforms will likely give vendors the power to shut your machine down remotely.  
We let vendors and media companies and others to introduce these clauses. Its time to start pushing back harder than we have been.
David Berlind is doing some great work in this regard. I would argue that as users we should all be supporting the likes of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (US) and the Open Rights Group (UK).
Ed Foster is another hero of the end user, although occasionally when reading GripeLog you get the feeling you’re going to turn into a beetle overnight. This can’t be happening…
What is my biggest single software license gripe? Why do vendors stick EULAs in those tiny windows you can’t resize? Because they don’t actually want you to read the damn thing, is why.
Is it any wonder that a science fiction writer explains the issues better than anyone? Go read Cory Doctorow.
Legislating IP is a useful blog to keep abreast of the legal issues.
These people and organisations are lobbying for essential freedoms and deserve our support.
This is not about a bunch of anarchohippies wearing sandals and trying to encourage piracy: Arrrggghhhhhh Avast Ye Land Lubbers. Tim Bray is right when he says “95% or more of the population hasn’t yet encountered DRM, and when they do, they aren’t going to like it”. But will will be in a position to complain, or will DRM kill free speech? The Induce Act was worded so loosely that just by arguing for fair use rights I could be seen to be inducing piracy. It didn’t pass in 2004, but who’s to say it won’t be back?
You may all think this is a fantasy. But look at cases such as the following: a UK academic claims he is currently suspended because he tried to question the data analysis in a report that had his name on it as lead author. He wasn’t allowed to see the primary research, and we’re to take it on trust that Procter & Gamble is a better author of his report than he himself is. Shame on Sheffield University. You couldn’t make this stuff up, unless perhaps you were a corporate lawyer…
Vendors that ask industry analysts to conduct research into a topic regularly ask to include a kill clause. That is, if they don’t like the results they want a guarantee the research will not actually be published. Needless to say, RedMonk refuses to engage in that kind of project. Needless to say, some other industry analyst and research firms are happy to take such commissions.
Unless we start agitating DRM is going to worse, not better. The scary part, to my mind, is that the way things are going, we may not even be able to complain about it….


  1. Great post James, right on. I too feel strongly about this and am a member of the EFF and waiting to join the ORG.

    It’s not gonna be enough though. Go into PC World or Curry’s over the Xmas season and watch the punters buying PC’s, MP3, etc in droves. They have no idea about DRM or TPM, and they’re the silent majority.

    Same thing for the kids (kids are those under 30!) and EMI or Virgin stores. They buy CD’s without any clue about whether they are *CD* format or not.

    Same thing for that gotta have: iPod and iTunes!

    So, how do we fix this? The politicians listen to big business, not the consumers.

  2. I have always felt that DRM is generally equivalent to banning gravity in an attempt to fly. I have however come to accept that it is not going to go away soon. I am now exploring the idea that maybe seeing DRM as an “us vs them” scenario, only benefits Them. The big folk get to all the shots and we moan about them. Can we turn things around ? Can we begin to see DRM as soemthing that is not necessarily negative for the “small guy”?

    Rights management is pretty fundamental to collaboration. To build good teams, you need to be able to assign responsibilities (rights) to certain people. You cant collaborate with a million people, and so must be able to restrict the rights of the many. I am in no way a fan of the current movements in the DRM game, but I do feel that, unless we start getting involved, it’s only going to be getting worse.

    What about Peer Rights Management? How would we fit rights management into a peer production environment? Could the creation of peer content (and their own rights management) systems actually strengthen communities? (By making roles, responsibilities and abilities more obvious)

  3. thanks harry and peter.

    to harry i would say lets keep agitating for a better informed debate.

    to peter i would say i see where you’re coming from, and i started following that line myself for a while, that DRM is an “enabler”. but you eventually realise at least in my analysis, that the use cases are so limited as to be absurd, when it comes to the need for DRM in, say, collaboration or photo-sharing, say.

    rights management may be fundamental to collaboration, but DRM is not. that is, we naturally shibboleth in the communities we live, we spot imposters and establish trust relationships, with no drm.

    peer creation – look at the creativecommons license. its not about DRM but simplicity, helping producers to create their own contracts allowing fair use, with no need of huge marketing and legal departments….

    roles, responsibilities and abilities all existed before DRM, and will continue to exist long after the oil runs out and nobody has any power to enforce digital restrictions any more…. 🙂

  4. Large enterprises tend to execute software agreements on their own paper so it doesn’t really affect them. Maybe some guidance from RedMonk on structing software licensing agreements for small companies is warranted….

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