EU Considering Consumer Protections for Purchased Downloads

Ars Technica’s piece details a nice reductio ad absurdam argument against selling downloads:

Consumers in some European countries have the right to return items with no questions asked for a specified time period after purchase. The Norwegian Consumer Ombudsman says that Apple violates the country’s Marketing Control Act by not offering a cooling-off period for music purchases, as Apple’s terms of service have no provision for refunds.

Obviously Apple and other sellers of downloads can’t abide a return policy, as people could buy, copy, and then “return” files at virtually no penalty in time or effort. (People can buy, rip, and return CDs and DVDs but it’s a bit of a hassle.) So they implement DRM schemes to restrict copying. Those schemes interfere with your right to use something you own.

If companies want to claim the benefits of commerce, they have to put up with its limits. Q.E.D.


Industry Standards and Free Software

What is Free Software?

Why use Free Software?

These two essays by Richard Stallman cover a lot of ground, and I think he does a great job of laying out the issues as both ethical and empirical questions. While the ethical questions are perhaps inherently debatable, the empirical ones are not. It is neither necessary nor in our long-term interests for software to have owners.

So the question is, why do we still use commercial software? In the SLC Digital Media Lab, which I set up, we use a closed, commercial operating system (Mac OS X) as well as several software packages which have built-in restrictions on copying, use, and modification (Adobe Creative Suite, Autodesk Maya, Apple iLife and Final Cut, etc.). On the other hand, we also use free software (Audacity, Blender, Firefox, Jahshaka, NeoOffice, VLC, etc.).

At one time, free operating system software (GNU/Linux) was not up to snuff in stability and compatibility. Beating Windows in stability was not a high hurdle, but it was a quite valuable achievement, as evidenced by the commercial success of Red Hat Linux in the mid- to late 1990s. And since the advent of (formerly StarOffice, released in 2000), there has been no really valid excuse to run Microsoft’s office suite, much less its OS.


The Virtues and Limits of Cataloging

The first wave of digital evangelism has passed. With the dot-com bubble burst and with the help of John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, among others, we are much less attracted to the pitch that all problems will be solved by the application of massive amounts of data.

Around the same time, Google proved that there is an extremely usable middle ground between cataloged, curated information sets and hopelessly disjoint stacks of data. Users increasingly choose the convenience of Google, and more recently Wikipedia, Flickr, and YouTube, over the authoritative thoroughness of library-mediated research.

Librarians cringe at amateur cataloging. It’s like home dentistry. Google’s black-box PageRank reflects the “uniquely democratic nature of the web” by choosing relevant information based on proxies for trust, reputation, and authoritativeness (not expert assessments of those qualities). Flickr and YouTube use “Web 2.0” social tagging techniques to roughly categorize content. Even non-librarians can appreciate the pitfalls of letting just anyone add meta-data – they’ll get it wrong.

But talking to librarians, I’ve started to appreciate whole other levels of control over the process and content of cataloging. IANAL — I am not a Librarian. The following discussion is for entertainment purposes only.



Combine the content customization of Google News with the social tagging of, wrap it in a pretty Web 2.0 interface, and you have Wikio. I have a tab set up to track tech news, another for world events, and a third for “intellectual property” issues… each feeding me RSS.


Thoughts on "Thoughts on Music"

Steve Jobs’ essay “Thoughts on Music,” which essentially shifts the blame for iTunes DRM to the record labels, has gotten a lot of buzz. I’m happy that he’s claiming Apple would sell music without DRM. But as others have argued, Apple could be selling (or giving away) non-DRM-restricted audio files right now. The “big four” record labels do have leverage over Apple, but Apple has gone farther than absolutely necessary by excluding non-DRM-restricted files from the iTunes Music Store. This gives the false impression that DRM is a market standard. In fact, there are several other competing download-for-sale services that use MP3 format (which has no DRM).

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.

This is sort of misleading, as there have been several attempts to use modified, non-Red-Book standard discs which could not be copied by a computer, but which appear to be normal CDs to standalone CD players (and purchasers). E.g., Sony’s copy protection scheme.

But the point is well taken. DRM is not viable in the long term, either technologically (because you have to give the user the key) or socially (because people will copy when it’s easy, but also buy when it’s easy). Now Apple just needs to put its MP3s where its mouth is.

See DVD Jon’s blog for a cynical take on the Jobs essay, and EFF for background on DRM issues.



I’m tempted to pass this amazing Harper’s article off as my own…

Right now, it’s super important to take a stand – as users of works in the public domain and as citizens for whom the restrictions of “intellectual property” are supposed to pay off in the long term. Our rights are being eroded and our interests betrayed. Copying that was once tolerated because of its relative difficulty is now being outlawed because it’s easy. That is backward.

Copying is now free, and all scarcity of information is artificial. Let’s stop wasting energy propping up a bogus model.


Open Access

I attended a provocative info session on Open Access hosted by Free Culture NYU. Below, I summarize the positions of the presenters. These are their words, not mine, although I must say I was convinced.


Conference: Taking Action on Open Access
Jan. 13, 2007.
Notes by Eli Jacobowitz

1. SPARC – Heather Joseph spoke.

Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.

A coalition of libraries dedicated to the dissemination of research results, reduction of financial pressure on libraries, and leverage of network and digital technologies.

The existing scholarly journal market is monopolistic and is not being constrained by market forces. Since 1986, the Consumer Price Index rose 60%, but the cost of scholarly journals has risen by 200%.

SPARC takes member library dues and creates alternative publishing models to compete. This is a market issue. In the case of publicly funded research, taxpayers pay three times! First for the initial researchers’ salaries, second for the peer reviewers’ salaries, and third for the library to license access to the journals that publish the results. The journals make average 38% profit margins.