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Doctorow’s Omen Shows Why We Need To Ban DRM

Cory Doctorow held a presentation just before the turn of the year, showing how the current copyright wars are just a skirmish in the battles yet to come. It is a very strong omen that gives you an idea just how much is at stake in the coming two decades.

Doctorow’s presentation is here. It is time well spent — Cory Doctorow is also quite the entertainer, even with a very serious message. If you want to speedread a transcript instead, you can do so here.

In short, Doctorow argues that the copyright industry’s fight isn’t against copying, but against general-purpose computers. As more and more devices we buy are general-purpose hardware devices with custom software designed to make that hardware do certain things out of the box, that custom software that drives the device is also custom-izable software that lets the hardware be recoded and repurposed to do completely different things.

Shortly, we’ll see basically every industry trying to crack down on the freedom to tinker, to keep the products they sold us in the same state as they were before we owned them. This is exactly where we’re headed if the current trends continue.

The problem is that many people don’t understand what a general-purpose computer is. Legislators still think in terms of hardware: A cassette player can only play a cassette. Therefore, a music player today must only play music.

That’s wrong of course. A music player today can be recoded to play, stream, receive, remix, or do other things with music. Or, for that matter, it could probably be recoded to become a networked earthquake early-warning sensor instead, if its microphone was sensitive enough to sense the low-frequency sounds that forebode earthquakes.

This idea — that an off-the-shelf entertainment device can be repurposed to become an earthquake early-warning sensor with just the copying of a file — is mind-boggling to today’s legislators. It is just so far out it doesn’t reflect sunlight any more. And it is with this mindset that they legislate that breaking any DRM — repurposing devices that you own — should be punishable with jail time.

This is the reason that I keep reminding the world why we need to ban DRM altogether. It is corporations writing their own laws restricting your property.

But it goes beyond that. Let’s return to the concept of the general-purpose computer. In the mindset of today’s oldish legislators, if you want to kill the possibility of broadcasting music from a music player, you remove some piece from that device. Just like you would remove a “stream” button from a keyboard.

But as we know, it doesn’t work like that. If you want to prevent a general-purpose computer from running a certain type of code, you have to add something to it. You have to add code that prevents it from running this type of code, which it has been designed to do, after all.

And this is where it gets interesting. Since you own the general-purpose computer, you can run any code on it — including code that removes the code preventing you from running some types of code. These instructions that kill the DRM restrictions, seen from the device’s point of view, is just any kind of code that the device will execute happily.

And so protection for the removal of the DRM code is built in next, like Sony did with its criminal rootkit in 2005 (which is why Sony is on my permanent blacklist). So then that code is removed first by the person owning the device, followed by the DRM code.

The general-purpose computer is, by its very definition, a device where DRM will never work.

The major problem is that legislators don’t understand this. They don’t understand that you need to add something to the device to make it less functional, and that this something can easily be removed by an end-user to restore full functionality again. So we get an endless nightmare where legislators mandate more code, more laws, more code, and yet more laws to try to add restricting code to our general-purpose devices, code that we can easily remove.

We need to shift the viewpoint and narrative on this story — we need to make legislators understand the concept of a general-purpose computer, and that by definition, you can’t restrict it from running code. We need a Freedom to Code at the citizen level, at the same constitutional level as Freedom of Speech, even if it goes against corporate interests. No, scratch that: especially when it goes against corporate interests.

Of course, one might argue that a general freedom to code would also be a freedom to code those pesky DRM restrictions. That is true on a philosophical level. The fight here, however, is to get an understanding of the general-purpose computer on a conceptual level into legislatures.

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