Thursday, April 12, 2007

Hackers And Haters

Discovered something very interesting via Boing Boing today:

The interesting part is this:

It used to be that programs were easy to copy and change. But manufacturers began to lose money as many people made copies of software and gave them to their friends. Now, many manufacturers have figured out how to 'copy-protect' discs. A copy-protected disc—like a cartridge—can’t be copied or changed. To our mind this is a disaster: Most people learn programming by changing programs to fit their own needs. This capability of customization is what makes computers so attractive. New ways of copy protection will probably be found soon. Until then, a computer owner may have to put up with being 'locked out' of his own machine.

Does that sound familiar at all? It will if you're a Boing Boing reader, or if you've paid any attention to DRM, the Creative Commons, Larry Lessig, etc. It's the same thing driving me nuts right now. I moved from New Mexico to Los Angeles, and left behind a hard drive full of music. No problem - all the stuff I really listen to is on my iPod anyway. Except I can't transfer it from my iPod to my laptop. No dice. Why? DRM crippleware. They made the device less powerful to appease the music industry.

There are huge holes in the music industry's arguments for DRM and copy protection in general, but it's pretty easy to see where early-80s computer manufacturers were coming from. Except free open-source software almost always trumps commercial software for quality. If you want quality product, you're better off with the free shit anyway.

And the thing is, if you're in the business of selling computers, an abundance of great software is a strong selling point. What would the world look like if computer manufacturers had been a little more reckless? Would we have had less software companies but more computer owners? Would the open source world have arrived sooner and stronger?

Would the entire hulking, stinking mass of Microsoft have ever even formed? You have to wonder. Where would Microsoft's monopoly power have come from in a world without copy-protected software? How much better would everybody's life have been?

It could be that what's going on with the copyfight isn't even about "pirates" vs. the Establishment. Maybe it's just a colossal paradigm shift. Go back a few hundred years and wealth wasn't about entrepreneurs; it was about knights and kings. In the past, wealth meant either you were good with a sword, or you had an ancestor who was good with a sword. But today, it means you're smart about making money, or you had an ancestor who was smart about making money. It could be that this whole thing with copyright law is just an old obsession with control that is useless and totally irrelevant in today's society.

If that's the case, it means the copyfight belongs to the Creative Commons people, and it's only a matter of time. Just as Public Enemy's legal battles over sampling were eventually validated by an entire genre based on one sample, this article on PCs from the 80s shows that a bad decision in favor of copyright on the part of early PC manufacturers was later invalidated by the rise of the open source movement.

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