Charles Arthur On Technology

They just can't stop the music

There's an almost obligatory scene in any action movie for kidults (you know, something where you have to be over 15 to get in) involving cars and chases. A baddie's car hurtles towards a petrol tanker whose driver conveniently has just stepped out. (Hence, nobody innocent will be killed in the ensuing conflagration.) Oh, no, here comes the car, it's going to hit the tanker! Ka-BOOM! Explosions all around.

There's an almost obligatory scene in any action movie for kidults (you know, something where you have to be over 15 to get in) involving cars and chases. A baddie's car hurtles towards a petrol tanker whose driver conveniently has just stepped out. (Hence, nobody innocent will be killed in the ensuing conflagration.) Oh, no, here comes the car, it's going to hit the tanker! Ka-BOOM! Explosions all around.

Much the same, though in the technological form, occurred last week when Real (maker of RealPlayer, which you'll probably have come across to listen to BBC content online) unveiled a product called Harmony which would allow people who'd bought "rights-protected" music from Real's online music store in the US to play it on an iPod.

Some people tried it; and it works. Which breaks the previously unbroken carapace around the iPod's commercial online music side: if you wanted to buy music online and play it on an iPod, only that from Apple's iTunes Music Store would work. All the dozens of other stores had incompatible formats. Harmony rips apart the commercial model Apple had built to make the iTunes Music store capitalise on the success of the iPod.

Kaboom. Apple issued a furious statement saying that it was "stunned that RealNetworks has adopted the tactics and ethics of a hacker to break into the iPod" and issuing a warning - threat, even - to Real and its customers that "when we update our iPod software from time to time it is highly likely that Real's Harmony technology will cease to work with current and future iPods".

That'll show them - won't it? Perhaps not, because what's going on here is a microcosm of the sort of battles that are being fought all over the world, in living-rooms and shops, between devices and content made by groups whose interests don't completely align with yours, the customer's, even though both the device makers and the content makers want your money.

Consider DVDs. You've probably come across "regional coding": if you buy a player or disc in the US and ship it back here, it won't play discs (or on players) over here.

Why is that? Not because of any technical problem, as you're surely aware. It's because film studios wanted to be able to control which "regions" of the world films first appeared in. This is for the highly non-technical reason that they didn't want to spend money making enough prints of the original film to release it at the same time all over the world.

Well, a combination of hackers (in the nice sense, of people who like messing about with things) and pirates saw to that one. The hackers worked out how to make DVD players region-free, creating a pressure that means you can now get them in supermarkets. And the pirates, by sauntering into first-run showings with camcorders, then making pirate DVDs, forced Hollywood to release its blockbusters simultaneously around the world; else they'd lose customers who'd already watched the film at home months earlier. Region-free machines are also pushing DVD prices down, very gently, between countries.

The lesson there is that technology resists having a lid put on content played on it. People like buying films, and music, and resent being told where or when they may use their property.

This whole field of "digital-rights management" (DRM) is filled with danger - for the consumer, specifically. If you buy a song from Napster, it won't play on an iPod. If you buy a song from the iTunes Music Store, it won't play on your non-iPod digital-music player. If you encode your music using Windows Media Player and then wipe your machine - say, to get rid of a virus or Trojan - or install a new network card, it's quite likely you won't be able to play the digital files back, because the Media Player DRM will insist it's not the same machine it was before.

These hugely annoying wrinkles are put in at the behest of content companies - the record labels and film companies - often against the better judgement of the hardware makers. Did regional coding lead to more people visiting the cinema, or bigger DVD sales? No, it just annoyed those who understood it, and frustrated those who didn't. Does the DRM on iTunes Music Store songs mean more songs are bought online? I can't see how.

Some people believe that DRM is antithetical to progress. In June the science-fiction writer and pundit Cory Doctorow gave an interesting talk to Microsoft's DRM specialists, explaining his point of view. The talk is repeated - copied - all over the internet because Doctorow gave his permission; a good layout is at www.dashes.com/anil/stuff/doctorow-drm-ms.html. It's long, but well worth reading. (How nice to have web pages and unlimited space.)

Among the points he makes are that content producers have always opposed new technologies. In the early 20th century, sheet-music publishers opposed piano rolls, probably the first consumer-oriented digital format. (Jacquard looms used digital cards for weaving patterns, but were very much business products.) What would happen, they asked, to expert pianists and sheet-music publishers?

As Doctorow points out, the expert pianists had to lump it, while the sheet-music publishers made a lump of cash out of per-roll payments.

The new technology created new markets, and left the old one behind. That's the story retold again and again through vinyl and CDs and now online music. People complain that the new markets trample the old ones. The result, though, is growth - except in fields that are already dying.

Doctorow implores his audience to trample over the contradictions of DRM: "Go build the record player that can play everyone's records." There's no doubt Microsoft's programmers are good enough to do that. What's unclear is whether their marketing people believe doing that is good.

What about Apple? Interestingly, in an interview last year with Rolling Stone (at www.rollingstone.com/news/story?id=5939600) its chief executive, Steve Jobs, said he had told the record companies, who were convinced DRM was the way forward: "None of this technology that you're talking about's gonna work. We have PhDs here, that know the stuff cold, and we don't believe it's possible to protect digital content." And he added: "It only takes one person to pick a lock. Pick one [digital] lock - open every door."

Real has picked the lock; so Jobs shouldn't really be surprised. But I think we could all be glad. After all, hacking is a good thing: it's how most new technologies are born.

network@independent.co.uk

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