DRM, Pop-ups and Rise of Free Software

A few months ago, I went to pick up a computer for a friend at the Apple store and had to wait for 45 minutes while memory was installed. While I waited, I listened to conversations of people coming in to ask technical support questions at the "Genius Desk."

In the 45 minutes I was there, every question asked was about getting around iTunes’ Digital Rights Management (DRM) for legitimate and legal reasons. Every answer was a "sorry" and a shrug.

Here’s an example: "I have a desktop computer, a laptop computer, and an iPod. My laptop broke and you guys just gave me a new one. Now I can’t copy my music over to the new computer." That iTunes users has every legal right to copy the song onto their new computer but the DRM won’t let them do it. What are the chances of someone that spends $200 on iTunes music files and gets locked out from their own legally purchased files by DRM goes back to buy more songs or re-download the ones they lost? Very low. They’ll buy a CD or just go download those songs on a P2P network they know is secure or unmonitored.

In response to this, iTunes’ DRM has become more permissive but it’s not enough — nor can it be. Ultimately, iTunes is competing with P2P systems and ad-hoc systems of swapping amongst friends. The RIAA is wrong in their characterization of the fundamental difference between these systems: the difference is not one of price — the price can (and will) get cheap enough that very few people will care. The core issue is one of software failing to respect its users by privileging the desires of outside interests (in this case the RIAA and its member companies) over its users’. The users get screwed and they won’t come back.

Here’s another example. The last three times I’ve introduced the concept of Free Software to folks, they’ve asked if Mozilla, which they use, is Free Software. Mozilla has taken off in the non-Free Software crowd in large part because of its ability to do pop-up blocking and some related features. Mozilla is doing something that Internet Explorer doesn’t and they’re sick of IE.

Nothing is stopping Microsoft from adding this functionality to IE. In the absence of patents, Free Software shouldn’t assume it can "out innovate" well-funded proprietary software (which seems to be one claim of the Open Source camp); functionality can and will be copied. The reason Internet Explorer can’t compete with Mozilla is that Microsoft places the desires of some (their executives, their executives’ friends, their shareholders, advertisers, pop-up-makers, Hotmail users, the RIAA and the MPAA) over the desires of their users. Microsoft chooses to not incorporate functionality that their users want.

The mistake that both the RIAA in demanding DRM and Microsoft in designing web browsers that don’t block pop ups are making is that they’re taking their de facto monopoly for granted. Their software is annoying — or worse — and as long as viable alternative exist, a growing number of people will turn to them. At some point, things will tip. As people become aware that there are alternatives, these monopolies will be eroded. Ultimately, they will be dismantled. The incumbents, chained down by deals and alliances and promises made to advertisers, recording industry executives, shareholders and their ilk, will find themselves unable to react in an appropriate or timely manner. Free Software is already poised to capitalize on this.

Royalties and Reality

In my entry yesterday, I mentioned that would contact the maker of Pol Pot’s Birthday to inquire about digital distribution. It turns out that Talmage Cooley, the filmmaker, would love uninhibited digital distribution of the film — but can’t afford it. It turns out that Cooley can scrape together the cash for the inexpensive royalties necessary to show the film in festivals but cannot afford the much higher fees that must be paid in order to webcast.

The recording companies continue to claim that if those distributing, performing, or reusing their work in other ways do not pay royalties, musicians will not be able to produce as much, or as good, music. This is fiction designed to sell both consumers and artists on an unjust, exploitative and inefficient system. Cooley’s experience is the reality of a expansive, pay-per-use, highly controlled and highly centralized system of permission and royalty-based access to ideas. It’s a reality where the vast majority of voices are systematically silenced by simple economics.

Independent artists and producers can’t pay expensive royalties for wide distribution of their work because they work is not commercially viable in the way that Hollywood and the RIAA member company’s products are. Their only available alternatives are degrees of silence.

It’s true that if Pol Pot’s birthday was distributed online and paid no royalties, the recording industry would get nothing. But it’s also true that the alternative — the more likely alternative and the one we have now — is for the film it to not be distributed at all; the music industry still get nothing.

In the latter case, the losers here are the independent filmmakers, whose work has its wings clipped systemically, and the consumers, who don’t get to see great independent film. This is a happy enough arrangement for big media of course. At worst, they break even. At best, consumers with lack of alternatives spend their time and their dollars on media that they can get access to. It is a fortunate coincidence that the remaining available films are produced by the large, established movie studios who are jointly owned, or in bed, with the large established recording companies. This is not a conspiracy: it’s a system optimized for the production of some sorts of content (the highly profitable kind) by disadvantaging and silencing available alternatives.

Pol Pot’s Birthday

I tend not to watch films very often but since short film seems better suited to my attention span, I’ve made an effort to go to Seattle’s One Reel Short Film Festival each year. The best film I saw there this year was Pol Pot’s Birthday made by Talmage Cooley.

The film was exactly what it title implies.

Birthday parties are supposed to be fun, right? Pol Pot is about the least fun person you can imagine (to say the least) and his party was not fun. It began with his lieutenants attempting to "surprise" him without giving him reason for alarm and continued through a very tense cake cutting and tasting scene and a brilliant gift giving moment (what do you get Pol Pot for his birthday?) — someone gave him a "Don’t Ask Me, I Just Work Here" desk icon.

Short films like this tend to be hard to get a hold of but you should keep an eye out for it. It’s well done and very funny. There is a writeup at the Brooklyn Film Festival website and an interview with the director elsewhere.

If I might squeeze an rant in here… I really can’t understand why filmmakers don’t distribute these sorts of short films online. There aren’t even the normal Hollywood-esque dubious reasons to not do it. If bandwidth is the concern, there’s always archive.org. And yes, I just emailed to the filmmaker.

Desserts I Can’t Resist

Ben and Jerry’s serves a flavor of ice cream called "Giant Chocolate Chip" in their ice cream shops. When I go there, I can’t resist ordering a "small giant chocolate chip" cone or cup. The problem with this is that I don’t particularly like Giant Chocolate Chip.

I’ve found it’s easiest just to not go to Ben and Jerry’s.

Ubuntu and Custom Debian Distributions

[ For the record, I am speaking for myself and not for Ubuntu, Debian-NP, Debian, or anyone else. ]

I have a vision for Debian; rather, I have a number of (sometimes contradictory) visions. One idea that I’ve fussed a lot about over the last couple years is Custom Debian Distributions. I have helped make a few things happen in one little corner of the CDD world (Debian-Nonprofit) but haven’t been as active as I’d like in the general CDD framework yet except through advocacy.

The idea behind a Custom Debian Distribution is, to borrow Enrico Zini’s terminology, to be global and local at the same time: to create an OS and set of applications that is targeted to a specific group of people and to contribute and collaborate within a larger community in a way that lets people without interest in that niche group benefit and for you to benefit from the work of people without interest in that niche. This is basically what Bdale Garbee talked about when he was talking about flavors in his 2003 DPL platform. I suspect people are hanging on to their one-flavor-fits-all model because they haven’t seen a compelling implementation of an alternative. I think that its the job of those of us that are sold on the idea to give them one (Thanks to everyone that has and continues to work on this in the CDD community).

Now as a few people know, I’m complicit in this whole Ubuntu Conspiracy. When Mark Shuttleworth first approached me about the project, the first thing I thought about was Custom Debian Distributions. I wasn’t, and am still, not exactly sure how those things relate exactly.

I was (and continue to be) tempted to think of a spectrum of "Debianness" with officially blessed Debian releases at the center, testing and unstable slightly outside of that, CDDs farther outside but just within the circle of what’s "officially" Debian, Ubuntu beyond that trying its best to hug the line, LinEx y sus hermanas in there somewhere, and Lindows almost on the periphery of our vision denying — to some but not all — that its on the spectrum at all.

But it’s not that simple.

From a technical perspective, it’s manageable. Ignoring project affiliation and institutional relationships, we might say that CDDs are about creating and maintaining a derived version of Debian over time and in way that offers all changes back to the pool of Debian (Debian won’t take all). Forking in the traditional sense is one thing — and it’s relatively easy; going out of your way to share and collaborate within the Debian community is one way to define a CDD.

So it’s simple if we, for the moment, think of Debian as a single monolithic blob — forget subprojects and CDDs. We can break the goals of a any Debian derivation down into three basic types of customization:

  • Package selection: Which software in Debian does the deriver want to include?
  • Package configuration: What configuration changes does a deriver want to include (anything you can do with debconf/cfengine)?
  • Package replacement (for lack of a better term): What packages does a derivative want to ship that has diverged from the package in Debian in terms of code (bug fixes, features, whatever)?

The problem (for my simplified model for explaining Debian derivatives — I don’t think it’s a problem in general) is that some people are working within this framework in ways that are visibly connected to the Debian community and some people are not and don’t want to be. Basically, Debian is whole lot more complex than just a ball of code.

In Jeff Licquia’s blog, he mentioned that Ubuntu is a fork. In a way he’s correct and in a way he’s not. I think part of the problem is that "Debian" refers to a long list of things. Just to start we’ve got:

  • Debian: the group of volunteers;
  • Debian: the "project" with a Constitution, leader, and decision making structure;
  • Debian: the ball of code (But which ball of code? Stuff on Alioth? Stuff in contrib? Stuff in the Debian-NP archive?);
  • Debian: the infrastructure that runs the code together;
  • Debian: the shared goals and the action of sharing (you share within the Debian community — you are part of Debian);

This creates problems and uncertainty that we in the CDD community has been grappling with for a long time: Is Debian-Nonprofit Debian? Can any CDD really be Debian?

Of course, coming from the Debian community, the CDD community began with the answer ("yes") and then went about trying to create and argue a justification. We’ve even defined the technology based on what would or would not allow us to honestly call ourselves "Debian" and have attempted to grasp onto definitions of "Debian" that make that possible. Debian-NP and every CDD is still trying to figure out what it means to be Debian and Debian-NP at the same time — how does one strike that balance?

Ubuntu starts out with an answer as well. Ubuntu is not Debian and I suspect this is what Jeff was referring to. Ubuntu wants to do things that Debian can’t, won’t, or just isn’t all that good at and thare is great room for synthesis here.

My concern is that the political side of things — the "who is Debian and who is not" — risks driving a wedge between the technologies being used by those customizing Debian from the inside and from the outside. People don’t work together because they are "not part of the same project" when they have every technical and strategic reason to collaborate.

Basically, I think we should let Debian stand for something political: an organization. When it comes to code, I think we should forget about this and find creative ways to work together.

I want to see Ubuntu, Progeny and the other Debian derivers work closely with the Debian derivers within Debian. I want this work to lead to systems of common infrastructure that makes applying the the different types of customization something resembling a standard. That’s only going to happen if we all try. That doesn’t mean there will be One True Way — there won’t. It does means that everyone is going to have to be flexible. I think ultimately, it will be worth it.

Oh Say, Can You See This Rorschach Test?

I think it would be nice to do a psychoanalysis of different nations based on the musical nature of their national anthem.

I don’t have a fixed set of results in mind but I’m pretty sure sure that Canada would come off pretty well. The US national anthem seems like a sure sign of a dysfunction.

Scott Rice’s “Son of ‘It Was a Dark and Stormy Night'”

New York City, land of the $1 used books on the street, has been good to me so far. Last week, I picked up Son of "It was a Dark and Stormy Night" which is compiled by Scott Rice from entries to the Bulwer-Lytton Contest. For those that have missed the annual mentions in newspapers and on radio programs, the Bulwer-Lytton contest is named after Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the Victorian novelist who opened his novel Paul Clifford with what has become the ultimate cliche opening: "It was a dark and storm night." The competition is a yearly one that challenges authors to come up with the worst opening line to a potential novel.

I enjoy reading the finalists each year as they make it into the press. You might think that too much of a so-good-it’s-bad thing is bad. I am pleased to report that while the pieces are bad, too much of this so-good-it’s bad thing is so good.

This book was published in 1986 so it includes some of the early gems that got the contest off and running. To set the tone, here is the winner from 1985:

The countdown had stalled at T minus 69 seconds when DesirĂ©e, the female ape to go up in space, winked at me slyly and pouted her thick, rubbery lips unmistakeably — the first of many such advances during would prove to be the longest, and most memorable, space voyage of my career.

—Martha Simpson, Glastonbury, Connecticut

What I’ve found hearing the winners each year is that a certain type of bad opening line tends to win every year. They tend to be long, convoluted, and slightly bizarre without being totally outlandish and confusing. They tend to use extremely bad, but not completely puzzling metaphors. What I like about this book is that it highlights a greater range of the types of bad writing submitting to the Bulwer-Lytton contest. Here is one that I enjoyed particularly:

Her breasts lept like lizards from high cliffs as fear welled up from her chest and danced a rhumba in her throat.

—Lucinda Ryan, Alameda, California

I also enjoyed this one:

The rather well-nourished buxomly matron waddled through the pulsating pedestrian traffic of Hong Kong, pensively meditating on the problems of being a big-breasted, broad-butted, broad broad abroad.

—Michael A. O’Neill, Rohnert Park, California

I think this one is my personal favorite:

With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.

—Alice A. Hall, Fort Wayne, Indiana

There are many more that I would love to list but that for reasons of space cannot. According to the BL website, there are the following collections published by Penguin:

  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
  • Son of "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night"
  • Bride of Dark and Stormy
  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: The Final Conflict
  • Dark and Stormy Rules Again

Unfortunately, all of these are out of print so Bookfinder or AddALL are the most reasonable choices if your local used book stores don’t have a copy. The other good news is that there is apparently another book ready but, the author(s) are having trouble finding someone to publish it. Check out the Bulwer-Lytton homepage for information.

I’m working on my own entry for next years contest. I think if I put my mind to it, I have a chance.

“Are you on crack?”

I’ve heard people in close relationships fight. Sadly, I’ve even participated in a few of them. Sometimes, these fights can spill into public. I’ve overheard young couples suggest that their partner might be "on crack" before.

Such suggestions were hardly necessary in the little domestic squabble I (and the entire rest of the subway car) overheard Saturday night: the young couple was loudly fighting over who had smoked a disproportionate amount of their shared stash of crack cocaine.

Thunder and Lightning

I moved to New York last week and the process has been less than perfectly smooth. On Saturday morning, I lay in bed listening to a spectacular lightning storm echoing off the tall buildings on all sides of me. A few hours later, I got up. My computer, did not.

My workstations’ motherboard has been replaced and the computer has been reawoken with a minimal amount of time and dollars spent. The Internet connection in my apartment, another victim of lightning induced slumber, is proving less resilient.

In Defense of Free Knowledge

I talk a lot about free access to information. When most of the people I talk to hear this, the first things they think about is music, the RIAA, Napster, and Peer-to-Peer (P2P) file-sharing. Music and P2P is usually where the conversation drifts.

I tell people that one reason P2P is scary to the music industry is because it completely supplants the industry’s role as distributors. [1] I tell them that P2P, and technologies like it, will become really powerful when P2P distribution technology is brought together with communities for the production of content totally separate from the industries created and sustained by the old distribution paradigm. [2]

At this point at the conversation (if my fellow conversationalist has not fled the room), folks often notice the implication of what I’m suggesting: by replacing highly centralized systems of distribution and production for music, I’m advocating the the destruction of the music industry. At the very least, I’m talking about the creation of a parallel competing industry built on radically different (and incompatible) technological, ethical, and economic ideologies.

Quite reasonably, people want to know what this replacement or parallel system will be before we rush off eliminating the companies currently paying the people making the music most of us have in our CD players. This is where I start sounding a lot less prepared. Ultimately, I don’t have the "this is the system we’re looking for" answer that people want. Unlike most people I talk to, I’m alright with not having that answer.

I think the reasons I’m comfortable without an answer are as follows:

I believe that access to information is ethical issue.

This is where I invoke Eben Moglen because he says it a lot better than I can. There’s a great talk Eben Moglen gave that’s based around his dotCommunist Manifesto. Moglen says:

The great moral question of the twenty-first century is: If all knowledge, all culture, all art, all useful information, can be costlessly given to everyone at the same price that it is given to anyone — if everyone can have everything, everywhere, all the time, why is it ever moral to exclude anyone from anything?

If you could make lamb chops in endless numbers by the mere pressing of a button, there would be no moral argument for hunger ever, anywhere.

I see no system of moral philosophy generated by the economy of the past that could evolve a principle to explain the moral legitimacy of denial in the presence of infinite profusion.

Free access to information is essential because the alternative is unethical and unacceptable. Replacing a system built on the unjust restriction of knowledge may not — and probably will not — be easy or smooth and that doesn’t matter. Migrating away from other unjust systems of the past — slavery, child labor, exploitation of all sorts [3] — is not always, or often, easy and smooth. Sacrifices are made.

Where sustainable solutions for the production of knowledge are not obvious, we — as producers and consumers — have a moral responsibility to be creative and to create them.

These types of changes take time.

With all its warts, copyright was a system that filled an important role at a particular time and in the context of particular technological and social systems around the production and and consumption of a particular intellectual good: eighteenth century printed books.

After the invention of the printing press, the pool of people who were reading expanded from the educated ultra-elite to the middle and working classes; public education became the norm. Patronage was simply not an optimum compensation system for the production of the types of work that were demanded. Copyright stepped in because it worked to support publishers and authors in the production of content that was desired but that was not being produced in adequate quantities under patronage, etc.

But it didn’t happen until more than 200 years after Gutenberg. Unfortunately, technological innovations in the production and distribution of intellectual goods do not spring from inventors loins complete with a a fully refined system for the compensation of authors whose work is produced or distributed using the new innovation. It would be a lot simpler if that were the case but it’s not.

Printing became mass printing and things got worse before they got better. We’re already seeing this with music. Things will get better and artists will continue to be paid. The less successful the RIAA is holding back and warping the technology, the sooner we’ll have tested and viable alternatives. [4]

There was music before copyright.

This may sound silly but part of the reason I don’t worry is that I can’t imagine a world where there are simply no musicians. There was music before copyright. There will be music after copyright.

The recording industry will tell you that without them and without copyright there will be no music. I’ve seen an "educational video" where the Software Business Alliance used a dark screen to emulate "the end of the computer age" brought on by software piracy.

If proprietary software became illegal tomorrow, would there be software? Yes. People need software. If proprietary music became illegal tomorrow, would there be music? Of course.

It might be different music. It might not be ultra-produced, ultra-expensive Britney Spears but if that’s really what you want, I’m sure someone in an RIAA member company will find a take your money in exchange for it.

The first reason is the reason we must forge ahead. Of course, there’s little point in advocating an ethical impossibility so the second and third reasons show us that there is enough historical and societal evidence that a world of ethical information sharing is possible. Together, they describe a realistic possibility of a more ethical system for the production of information and knowledge and this is a compelling reason for me.

[1] At this point, that’s all P2P is really supplanting in a meaningful way: most content on P2P network is produced by an industry made possible through tight centralized control over the mechanisms of production and over the product itself.
[2] For those of us in the Free and Open Source software world, we already have some hint of what this can look like — although I am sure things will be somewhat different when it happens with music.
[3] I don’t intend to imply that child labor or slavery and copyright are moral equivalents. I’m simply stating that their abolition was a moral imperative in the face of strong and highly
ingrained economic considerations.
[4] Of course, the RIAA doesn’t want viable alternatives to the system that they are firmly in control of, but that’s a story for another day.

Conference Backgrounds

In lectures and conferences, I tend to find that I concentrate better if I’m sitting in the front row. I also tend to take notes on my laptop.

Because I usually type in transparent or translucent terminals, I tend to look at my desktop backgrounds a lot. In the front row of conferences at lectures, so does the rest of the room.

I realized this when someone came up to me at DebConf2 to ask for one the background images I was using.

Since DebConf2, I make a point of using backgrounds hand-picked for their effectiveness as conference backgrounds: this usually means images which manage to combine extreme distractability and inoffensiveness. The following is one from my standard arsenal (click the image for the full size copy):


Time To Kill

Since I’ve heard of it’s existence, I’ve always wanted to take the trans-Siberian railroad from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg. I think spending a week or more on a train would be interesting. You can fly the same distance in a fraction of the time: What kind of person has a week or more to spend an the train? I’m pretty confident that the answer is: interesting people.

Even with all those interesting speople, I’m sure I’d have some spare time. In preparation for my as-yet-unplanned journey, I’ve started making a list of things I’d like to be able to learn that would be within my grasp if I just had a whole bunch of spare time with nothing better to do:

So far, the list is short but it includes:

Learning to walk while flipping a coin

I think it looks very cool when someone, preferably in a zoot suit and a big hat but still good without either, walks down the street flipping a coin while they go. Big valuable coins look the best.

When I try this now, I just drop the coin after a few steps and look like a fool chasing it down. I’m confident that a dedicated week of practice on a train would fix this.

Counting cards

Evidently, my grandfather spent some time as a card counter and pro-gambler. I’ve looked at some blackjack card-counting training software and the principles are pretty simple. It’s a routine that requires nothing more than practice and dedication.

If could go through a routine a few dozen times a day, I’m s sure I could count card decently in the St. Petersburg casinos upon arrival.

Whistling two notes at once

In a two-week break in eighth grade, I taught myself how to whistle. On my Siberian journey, I’d like to take this to the next level. I can already making a humming noise while I whistle. What I cannot do is vary the notes independently from each other to make two part harmony with myself. I think knowing how to do this would be extremely entertaining.

I suspect that this one, at least in the initial learning phases, would be the least popular with my trans-Siberian companions.