Thursday, 7 January 2010

Open Source, DRM, and why closed-anything is dying

I have often thought about DRM (digital rights management) and similar issues, but I try not to. It annoys me. See, it depends on your basic view of humanity. If you think that people are basically thieves, then you will support DRM. If, however, like me, you think that people are basically willing to pay for what they think something is worth, then you will find DRM offensive.

Let me give you an example. I know of many people who have found illegal music on internet, and have, as a result, purchased it legally, because they liked it so much. They are not a minority. The success of the Apple iTunes store is proof of this. If people weren't fundamentally honest, and willing to pay for stuff legally, why would anyone bother to use the iTunes store? Why is it such a success? I'll tell you why: it is because people WANT to pay. Placing DRM (software to prevent piracy) into music, or ebooks, or whatever, is actually just a way of saying to your customers that you believe that they are criminals. In so doing you prejudge their intentions. It's a bit like selling a car with a bonnet ("hood", for my American readers) - that is welded shut, just in case your customers want to pirate your engine design. And then requiring that they go to a special branded dealer only to get the bonnet opened when a service is required. It really is as outrageous as that. Look at what happened to Apple. They tried putting DRM in their files - they sold .m4p files - mpeg-four protected. People complained so much that they had to stop. It was ridiculous. If you got a new computer or a new iPod, it would refuse to copy the files onto it. Even though you paid for it. It really annoys me. Think about LPs. Remember those? Were you paying for the music or were you paying for the vinyl? The record companies seem to think that you were paying for the vinyl. Because when cassettes came out and you wanted them for your original tape-based Walkman(TM) in the early 80s, you had to buy the cassettes separately. Likewise, in the late 80s, when CDs became popular, you had to buy the CD again. And then, with the advent of the iTunes store, AGAIN you had to buy the song. This time it had no medium - no physical substrate which the record companies could argue was the "thing" you were buying. So if I buy an mp3 from the iTunes store, am I finally, finally, after all these years, buying the thing I THOUGHT I was buying all those years ago? Am I finally buying the music? NO. According to the various licenses you have to agree to, it seems you're just renting it on a permanent basis. This sucks. I've paid for certain tracks at least four times (LP, CD, cassette, MP3). I can tell you exactly which tracks, too.

The same applies to open vs closed-source software. By not allowing your customers to see your code, you are assuming that they're thieves. But look at how Linux has proliferated, and now dominates the server market. Furthermore, under the Ubuntu brand (, Linux is starting to make inroads into the desktop market. Granted, few people - especially non-computer-nerds - would bother, because of the proliferation of Windows(TM) in the desktop market. But that doesn't mean it's not good, or not adequate for the same purposes. I can understand the reluctance to move though; it is fear of the unknown. I see the wide-eyed terror in the eyes of everyone over 50 years of age whenever I tell them that they really ought to ditch their slow PC running Windows(TM) and get a Mac. They are overwhelmed with fear, and mumble incoherently about how it works. And then shortly after, ask me to remove the viruses, and get rid of the trojans, and explain why their money has disappeared out of their bank account - and why there's a keylogger on their machine. I just shrug and say, "Get a Mac".

But that's not my main point. Here it is. What is even worse than closed-source software is closed document formats, like WMA/WMV, DOC, etc. Microsoft(TM) documents, in other words. I find this assumption that everyone can or wants to read and write these documents highly offensive. For example, what is the point of storing music in WMA format? It just prevents 10% of the world from using it. It's a kind of negligence or indifference. It's as annoying as if, for example, you were to land in Paris and they refused to speak English. What is the point? Is this not harming business? Why create something that you can't share? I'll tell you the point: greed. It forces everyone on the planet to buy your closed-source software. It forces everyone to buy your product. Imagine, for example, that you had to buy Texaco petrol if you bought a Chevrolet. Imagine the outcry! But people do this every day when they boot up Windows(TM) on their computer.

It has to stop. All documents should be open-content XML. Fortunately, Microsoft has seen the light on this matter with the .docx format. But what about WMA, WMV, AVI, and all that other PC-only junk? Why are the APIs not open? And even more baffling: Why would anyone in their right mind create and try to sell a product based on a closed format? It's reducing the number of buyers you could have. It's as stupid as making a website that only works in MSIE. Just because 90% of the market can view or use your website, doesn't mean that you're not deliberately cutting off 10%. Why would anyone do this? Why would, for example, some recording artists distribute their music on their websites only as WMV/WMA/AVI? What are they trying to say? That you MUST buy Windows(TM)? Is that the message they want to put out? Because it's the message that I'm getting. Are you really that well-off that you can afford to ignore 10% of the potential market? Why not simply use an open format, like W3C-compliant sites, ODF/XML, mp3, mp4, etc.? What is so hard about this? Just use "save-as mp3" instead of "save-as wma"! It's just a different format, and takes no effort to create one or the other! Why use closed formats at all? I cannot understand it. My policy, when people send me .DOC files, is to reply with an AppleWorks file. Just so they see how annoying it is. It's not that I can't read it. It's the arrogant assumption that I want to.

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