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

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.]