Monday, May 14, 2007

The Conflict of Tomorrow, Visible Today...

The two biggest tech stories on Monday were that 1) iTunes was cracked, and 2) Microsoft is suing Linux users for patent violations. Now step back from the particulars for a second and see the forest through trees: what these two stories share in common is a pitting of new-world internet free culture warriors versus old-world corporate industry behemoths. Put another way, these two cases grabbing headlines on the same day symbolize the larger ideological battle taking place in our society - a culture of freedom clashing with an economy of control.

Here are some details to help make the point clear. A crack for iTunes was posted on an internet discussion board Monday, revealing to the world how iTunes users can circumvent DRM copy-protection and basically play, copy, and share their songs however they please.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is claiming that Linux, the free open source operating system, violates an astounding 235 of its patents, and is planning on suing Linux users and distributors for royalties.

In each case we see warriors of free culture at odds against a for-profit corporation reliant on control. The hacker (or "cracker", to be more precise) who shared his knowledge of how to undermine Apple's copy-protection controls is only the latest tale in the ongoing anti-DRM movement. Likewise, in the Microsoft case, we see the maligned monopolist battling the open source community through legal threats and intimidation in order to... what? Prevent programmers from writing code and having the nerve to not charge for its use?

There are two cyberspaces that currently exist. One which is feared for its inability to control behavior, and one which is embraced as a potential liberator that can empower people, allow creativity to flourish, and embolden society to achieve things never before imagined. The music industry sues teenagers for "piracy", while nearly 90% of all internet users admit to illegally downloading music through "file sharing". Microsoft insists on keeping its source code closed and proprietary, despite how more than half of Fortune 500 companies now use the open and free operating system, Linux, in their data centers - with that number growing and Microsoft shares stagnating.

Does anyone else see a disconnect here? Take a survey of any group of American teenagers or young adults and the results are always stunningly and overwhelmingly in favor of the ideological "free culture" of which Lawrence Lessig speaks. How can you fight that? More and more often, Microsoft, Apple, the RIAA, and their brethren seem as antiquated and out of touch with modernity as manual typewriters or 8-tracks - simply fighting a lost cause trying to protect their inarguably outdated business models, clinging to the past so stubbornly that it almost invokes a sense of pity - like Al Bundy able to do nothing in the face of failure but try to relive his high school football glory days thirty years later.

But if history is any guide, you cannot deny reality forever; you can, at best, only postpone it a little. Microsoft can't compete with a free operating system of superior quality, so it tries to sue it out of existence. The RIAA and Apple can't stop people from copying and sharing their files, so they get more aggressive in tightening controls and criminalizing their own customers. Neither seeing the futility of their actions.

And so the beat goes on...


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