There's no such thing as good S.H.I.T.

There's no such thing as good S.H.I.T.

Summary: C.R.A.P. is one way to describe DRM, but there's no such thing as simple hacks of intellectual transactions (S.H.I.T), because we're distrustful little monkeys.


ConundrumI wish there was an easy way to move from one economic system to another without a lot of upheaval and discomfort, but it just isn't so. Simple hacks of intellectual transactions (or S.H.I.T., my catchy phrase for changing human economic behavior) don't come along very often and almost never when your marketplace is deeply divided by competing platforms, whether capitalism versus communism, supply-side versus demand-side economics, or Windows versus Mac and Linux.

Transactions are built on reciprocity, doing something in return for having something done. In his excellent The Company Of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life, economist Paul Seabright points out that reciprocity comes with a downside, as revenge is another form of reciprocity.

We're animals that evolved the ability to forge exchangesEvery regime, whether "free" "fee" or "taxation," treats "content" as a singular thing, accessible to the same calculations of value, which is not realistic. of value, but the measure of value constantly changes, at least in the historical timeframe, so there is always some hedging and we remain essentially distrustful and build systems to ensure the imbalance of value doesn't go too far. Folks counting on a peer-to-peer gift economy Nirvana fail to acknowledge that, even in the best of situations, people are still tallying up their needs against the resources they receive in exchange for their contributions. If the relationship isn't roughly reciprocal, it's annoying, which eventually translates into revenge-seeking. It's even more so when the resources in question are intellectual, about which everyone has their own opinion of value.

Unfortunately, some content distributors have mistaken those systems for tools that can be used to create and defend a hardware businesses. In the computer industry, Microsoft has famously been subject to extensive anti-trust litigation for tying functionality, like the ability to browse the Web, to its operating system. DRM implemented to keep a user from buying content from anyone other than the hardware maker is essentially the same kind of abuse of market power.

My colleague David Berlind does a good and entertaining job of explaining why incompatible DRM systems make buying and owning music a pain in his A load of C.R.A.P. visit to the whiteboard. He's right, it's a pain to buy music and not have it play on all the devices we own. Unfortunately, I was never able to play a vinyl record on my television or the CD players I've purchased over the years. I've had to make a series of bargains with vendors who have done a good job of engaging and serving my musical passions. I've abandoned many of those bargains—and a lot of value along the way—as vendors have failed to please me or remain competitive with alternatives.

I have been happy with my iTunes-purchased songs, because I back them up (I'd prefer to be able to download them again). Contrary to the blanket description David offers of "tak[ing] the content you've paid good money for and play it anywhere you want," I have been able to rip CDs and DVDs to play the content on iPods—the C.R.A.P. he refers to keeps content in, not out. As a tool for converging previously purchased music and video, the iPod works fine for me, for now.

And, like the scared little monkey that started my lineage, I've made a bargain with Apple for access to the songs and videos I purchase from them. I can play them on my iPod, my Mac or PC and, if I buy a bridging device, on my stereo or TV. I've decided not to buy downloadable music through other services, because the iTunes price is right and will get lower (and higher, in which case a CD or DVD will still be the better option). It's a mixed bag, not a perfect solution to my media use.

Now, I freely admit that isn't such good S.H.I.T., but in a time of transition it's really a matter of finding the compromise between not having the music I want—especially the ability to buy single songs instead of whole CDs—and enjoying what I can on the budget I have.

The problem with David's C.R.A.P. is that the individual DRM regimes are not open and licensable. They are designed to tie people to devices. Apple should license its FairPlay DRM, but it won't, because the DRM ties iPod users to the iTunes store.

In other venues and this blog, I've argued that functions of DRM are useful in many circumstances, such as keeping small group-group and corporate communications private or to count listeners to support advertising business models. That doesn't mean that DRM offers total security, but that it makes eavesdropping on something the creator doesn't want freely redistributed a little difficult—this is monkey thinking, after all. And I've helped architect a DRM-enabled system that also supports completely free redistribution of files, because the ability to try different business models is critical to finding appropriate bargains between creator and audience for many different kinds of content.

Ben Vershbow writes in the if:book blog about Richard Stallman's absolute rejection of commerce, the commerce-shy Creative Commons (which still hasn't come up with an adequate commercial CC license based on creator-definable terms for reuse) and the suggestion, by Terry Fisher, in his book Promises to Keep: Technology, Law and the Future of Entertainment, that a government entity sit between creators and audience, collecting taxes and allocating payments to artists for freely accessible cultural programming.

Every one of these regimes, whether "free" "fee" or "taxation," treats "content" as a singular thing, accessible to the same calculations of value, which is simply not realistic. 

The mistake we could make in simply tossing out DRM as C.R.A.P. is to toss out the negotiation that must take place between artists, musicians, videographers, actors, directors, producers, programmers, their middlemen (distributors, who do a lot of things, like marketing, that creators aren't so good at), and the people who want to listen to or view programs made by those creative people. There are so many unique things created by people that we cannot treat them all the same; it's one of the charms of our monkey minds, after all, that we find so many stories, creative ways to code and manipulate information.

Negotiations must continue, sometimes by refusing to buy C.R.A.P., as David Berlind suggests, but also by trying different approaches to content distribution that may be enabled by the useful aspects of DRM technology and always looking for the most immediate channel between creator and customer/audience so that, like everything else economic, the process of creative production can be more efficient. I recognize that treating creative people as equals—that is, able to negotiate their own terms on level economic grounds—means there can't be just one default choice in every transaction I have with them.

I may be smoking something, but at least I know there's no such thing as good S.H.I.T.

[Full Disclosure: The writer is a consultant to Audible Inc.]

Topic: Apple

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  • What if they held a negotiating party

    ... and only one side was allowed past the gate?

    That's the nature of <insert acronym of your choice>: all of the forms are dictatorial, not negotiated. The controls are "whatever the provider feels like."

    Historically, copyright has been a legal construct with courts to resolve conflicts and enforce social policy. The AOYC removes those checks and balances.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Why do you stand behind a gate?

      All these technologies should be negotiable and are, just as
      copyright was "effective," if you can call it that, during a print-era
      dispute. The difference is that the copyright was reactive, so
      customers need to be more active before, rather than after, buying
      something?but the same kinds of give-and-take calculations are
      in their hands.
      Mitch Ratcliffe
    • Not quite true

      First of all, if you buy a product that you know has DRM on it you've agreed to the terms of the seller has put forth. If you don't buy it then you've turned down the offer. That is the basic negotiation between buyer and seller. The seller has a choice at this point they can drop the price on their product, or they can modify the product to suit your needs or they can walk away from the negotiation. Most sellers take the last option until it really bites into their bottom line then they do one or the other of the first two. This is rather basic economic behavior in a capitalist system. I know I don't buy music with DRM on it because I like to use it in different formats and like being able to convert between the two. Now to date there hasn't been a piece of music, movie or tv show that I've wanted so badly i'm willing to give up on that negotiating point.
      • Stick to it, and blog and find better ways

        You're right, the negotiation has been pretty binary. But if there
        is a spectrum of options available, which there should be, the
        market will move.

        So, make the other options apparent or build other options?I
        did with Audible's Wordcast, which supports every business
        model we could think of, from free to fee to ad-supported (we
        stayed away from the taxation model). And the Audible DRM is
        licensable by anyone, the company has got it built into most
        portable and desktop players, so at least there's the ability to try
        different models side-by-side.

        I would point out that it is not true that you have never given up
        on the DRM question if you've ever purchased a DVD or watched
        a cable program, both of which are protected by encoding that
        has the same effect as DRM, to make it harder to make a
        duplicate. If you've not done those things, more power to you.
        I'd just like to see this discussion stay realistic.
        Mitch Ratcliffe
  • You're full of it

    There may not be such a thing as good S.H.I.T, but you're certainly full of it anyway. You can have all the DRM you want. The rest of us can do without it and your S.H.I.T.
    Ole Man
    • Wow, that was penetrating in its complexity

      Look, Ole Man, your all-or-none view is both inaccurate?you
      have used variations on the technology for years, such as when
      the cable network records who is actually watching a show?and
      anti-progress. If the only way to move forward is to do it one
      way and one way only, you're fighting against change of any
      sort, because not everyone is on the same side of the

      Simple Hacks of Intellectual Transactions are what I am saying
      don't exist, btw, because they almost always oversimplify the
      economic relationships. But, instead of actually talking about
      that, you're taking an ad hominem approach the argument that
      stops progress and discussion.
      Mitch Ratcliffe