March 2002

There is an ominous trend in the entertainment and publishing industries today. Not only has there been a steady degradation in quality of content over the past few decades (see the article at MSNBC), but these gigantic enterprises have decided to stop trying to improve the product and instead squeeze out more income from the end-user. How do they plan to do this? Simply put, by using the power of government to mandate hardware-based copy protection.

Many of you readers no doubt remember the "bad old days" of copy-protected software. Nothing (in the pre-Windoze days) caused fits of anger like having Lotus 123 complain that "you have used up your allocated number of installs" just because you defragmented your hard drive! The embedded copy-protection checker could not find the secret file it had originally hidden on your hard drive during installation (which it wrote there directly without an entry in the DOS FAT table). This is because the defragger had moved it to a "more efficient" location on the drive, and had dutifully notified the FAT table.... while naturally failing to notify Lotus. A defragmenter assumes that all valid files have a FAT entry and that this is all that is required to locate a file. The defragger had no way of recognizing the meaning of a certain "special" file, since all files are supposed to be transparent to a utility program.

Would we really like to have defrag, read, write, copy, and other utilities read the contents of our files before processing them? Yet this is the kind of mechanism that the music distribution, movie distribution, and software distribution empires want to create. They want to apply this new regime at an even more pervasive level: they are urging the hardware manufacturers to collaborate with them to produce hardware-based copy-protection schemes. Imagine that -- it would become illegal to buy or use a PC that did not have a federally-approved copy-prevention mechanism embedded in the chips, the hard drives, the CD-ROMs, or whatever other storage devices were invented in the future. What would be the consequences of this so-called "advance" or "innovation?"

It should be obvious to all readers that this new regime will dramatically increase the cost and the complexity of computing. Imagine having to ante up a credit card just to make a backup copy of your favorite .MP3 or .WAV file. Imagine having to pay a monthly subscription fee (to each website!) to download news, weather, or sports information from the Web. Imagine having to ask for special permission to restore an accidentally-deleted file!! Or, imagine having to pay Microsoft for a new copy of Windoze every time a software bug or a virus or a hardware crash requires you to re-install it....

And yet, all of this depends on the assumption that the copy-protection mechanism actually works. Can hardware-based copy protection work? Sure, just as reliably as any other hardware product. That means it will fail just as often as hardware does, even if perfectly implemented. Will companies that charge a per-copy fee quickly reimburse us if the copy does not take place successfully? What if there is a media defect and that .MP3 file needs to be copied again? What if there is a power outage during the copy process? What if we accidentally copy the wrong file -- must we pay for the valid copy as well as the erroneous one?

And what happens to us if the protection scheme simply falls flat and refuses to let us copy anything at all? Will PC repair shops require a special Disney-approved license in order to repair duplication mechanisms? Will it be illegal to repair your own PC or television set? Will people who use older, non-protective technologies be branded as pirates and thieves?

This is just what society needs, to add another layer of complexity, confusion, and inconvenience to our already complicated lives. The beauty of information is that each person can manipulate it to their heart's content, can distribute it, and collect it, and process it at will. The major information-based corporations are intent on finding a way to destroy that beauty. This is the result of that infamous combination of incompetence and greed that rules the modern corporate hierarchy. Incapable of original or creative thought, these monolithic content-makers substitute decadence and plagiarism instead. Then they whine and complain when they cannot make exorbitant profits from their swill.

So they are intent on squeezing out profit from the enduser's information-handling activities, all in the name of "intellectual property." To curb the abuses of a tiny minority of users, they are banding together to place huge burdens of inconvenience and complexity on the rest of us. Obsessed with the thought that somebody, somewhere, someday may get a "free" copy of one of their products, they are willing to add to the cost structure of every normal, legal, personal information-processing activity. Say goodbye to "fair use" and the ability to listen to your favorite music CD in your car, at home, and at the office. From now on, you'll have to buy a separate copy for each physical device you use your CDs in, or else physically carry your collection of originals from place to place.

Most recent revision: February 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.