Thursday, January 15, 2009

Intellectual vandalism

As a student, I read some book -- I think Michael Scott Rohan's original Winter of the World trilogy -- in which the hero, a blacksmith, had his legs deliberately broken to keep him from leaving town.

I thought then that this was the essence of barbarism. To deliberately maim someone -- to intentionally make an able body less able -- and to do it, for no better reason than that you didn't want the burden of having to treat them decently. Surely, I thought, this is what the Law is really for: to protect us from such arbitrary and selfish uses of power.

In 1989, the 80486 computer chip came onto the market -- the fourth in the series that began with the 8086, and direct ancestor of the various types of Pentiums that probably power the computer you're reading this on. It was shockingly expensive. But among its advances over its predecessor, the 80386, it had a floating-point co-processor built into the chip itself.

I'd always wanted one of those. It meant you could play games that involved drawing detailed graphics on the screen in real time. Things like flight simulators. I waited, eagerly, for the price to come down to the point where I could afford one.

In 1991, the chip manufacturer, Intel, produced the cheap version: the 80486SX. As everyone knew in those days, the "-SX" suffix meant "cut-down"; in this case, it meant "without the co-processor". To me that seemed the epitome of pointlessness. But by then I was a technical journalist, and it was my business to read lots of reports and writings about developments just like this. And I learned something that shocked me deeply:

The 486SX did have the co-processor built onto the chip -- it was exactly the same chip, built on the same lines in the same factory as the full version -- but the co-processor was artificially disabled. Like Rohan's blacksmith hero, the chip had been deliberately crippled to make it less useful.

In my economics lessons, I'd learned that the purpose of work is to add value to something. Everyone who adds value makes the world a slightly better, or at least richer, place; somebody, somewhere, gains some utility that they would not otherwise have had.

So what should I think of people who work, on purpose, to make a product less useful?

To me that seemed, and still seems, no better than vandalism, or at best theft. I can understand the motivations -- but then I can understand the motives of vandals and thieves, too, and it doesn't mean I accept them as legitimate.

And today the same argument is going on with a much higher profile, although no-one seems to recognise it.

It's called "digital rights management". What it means, in a nutshell, is that publishers add bits of code to their products that prevent them from being used in ways they otherwise could.

Now, the amount of virtual ink that's been spilt in debating the rights and wrongs of DRM in general is, approximately, enough to fill the Atlantic. You don't have to look far to find rants or measured opinions on either side of the subject, including some by yours truly. (I have mostly taken the position that publishers have no moral or legal right to do most of the things they do. The vast majority of their measures are used to enforce "rights" that the law was never meant to grant them in the first place.)

But that's not my real objection. That's just the legalistic formulation of the underlying problem, which is a moral one. It is intrinsically wrong, I believe, to devote time and effort to make your product less useful than it would be if you didn't. That means you're working to make the world a poorer place. And that means you're a vandal, and you belong in jail.

But our economic system is so perverse that it rewards such behaviour. Even worse: our laws are being perverted to not merely protect, but actively support, it. To my mind, that's enough to discredit the entire consumerist economic system; what we are fighting over now is whether the legal and political systems that go with it can be redeemed. They're meant to protect us, the consumers, from this kind of abuse. If they won't do that, what are they good for?


Eric Lester said...

I was thinking recently about one of the reasons that I use Open Source software, which is that it is easier to access in every way. Obviously, the fact that one doesn't have to pay for it makes it easier to access, but access is also aided by the fact that the manufacturer doesn't have to cripple the product in order to protect it from theft.

When I was in school last we worked quite a lot with Windows 2000. An interesting fact I learned then was that every Windows 2000 CD was really the same, no matter whether it was the "Professional" version, or one of the "Server" versions. It was simply a matter of some of the code being disabled. Furthermore, we had some CDs made for education that were also complete, but had additional code that made them disable within 120 days.

Many things about proprietary software and DRM "protected" audio and video art forms are unpleasant, unwieldy, and -- as you point out -- basically inefficient.

The genie escaped the bottle, some years ago, and the greedy has-beens that live in denial of this are at best pathetic and at worst destructive.

vet said...

"protect it from theft" - exactly. Because if I buy a game and then copy it onto my hard drive, so that I don't have to keep switching the disc in and out, I'm stealing it, aren't I?

This is the mindset that caused me to fall out with Atari, a couple of years ago now. I loved Neverwinter Nights, and when I saw that there was a Neverwinter Nights 2 I snapped it up.

It wouldn't run. Complained about the disc not being in the drive, even though it was. Accused me of using a copied disc - which I wasn't, even though the EULA explicitly said I could.

I followed the instructions, wrote to the help address. They wrote back saying "send us a diagnostic file". I did that, and they said "you're a thief". Which I strenuously denied, and they eventually admitted perhaps I wasn't, and sent me a link to a fix. All well and good...

... until the first patch appeared. The game, I should mention, was buggier than a termite mound, and it needed a lot of patching. And with each patch - and these were big patches, we're talking hundreds of megs each to download, and a recommended five gigs of hard drive required spare to install - we'd repeat this whole exchange. I spent more time patching the damn' game than playing it.

Every so often, when I want to remind myself how much I despise Atari and SecuROM, I still get the game out and play it for half an hour or so, which is as long as it takes me to get incredibly bored and frustrated. And then I go back to the original Neverwinter Nights, which is still a terrific game, and (as of one of the last official patches) has no disc check at all.

As a consequence of which, I've not only still got my original disc, but I've bought two or three more copies of it, and all the expansions, even those I could legally have downloaded. Atari made real money off me from that game. But now they're not getting another cent off me for anything, until they repair NWN2.

Eric Lester said...

I'm not interested in games (actually I'm afraid of them -- I'd probably like playing and that would be the end of me) but I have reached a point where I simply don't buy software. If I can't get it free I don't have it. The hell with 'em.

And I'm getting a little tired of paying for cable tv and dvd rentals, too...