Monday, December 19, 2011

Digital Shoplifting and Amazon's Price Check App...

I'm a bit puzzled over the latest firestorm with Amazon. At issue is the company's release of a Price Check app for smartphones. The app is yet another price-comparison shopping tool out of dozens already out there, but what's generating buzz is that Amazon is publicly encouraging users to go into physical bricks-and-mortar stores and scan barcodes by offering an extra 5 percent off purchases, up to $5, so that users can see if Amazon offers the same product at a cheaper price.

What's the big deal? Well, none other than the Wall Street Journal has labeled this "Information-Age Shoplifting". The New York Times joined the chorus as well, pointing that although Amazon's campaign was geared more against Wal-Mart and Best Buy, it incited a monster backlash from small independent bookstores.

Apparently, many prominent authors (who, by the way, earn considerable income from Amazon sales) were also dismayed by the app, describing it as "scorched-earth capitalism" that would turn users into "Droid-packing spies" and would ultimately "further devalue, as a cultural and human necessity, the book itself".

Great material. That's why they're writers.

But am I missing something here? This is just a price-comparison tool, and there are so many out there, and they've been around for so many years, what's the issue? Is it simply that Amazon is (gasp!) offering an incentive for people to actually use their software? That hardly seems worth all the commotion.

I'm a big proponent of small, local, independent retailers. But the role they play in fostering real-life communities and culture is not mortally threatened by this one schmucky app; it's under threat by a myriad of forces occurring over a several-decades-long time span. And, yes, I realize that Amazon isn't exactly a countervailing force in that movement. But this is not doomsday.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The U.S. Copyright Office Legalizes Hacking (again)...

Despite what intellectual property owners would have the public believe, hacking encrypted digital products is not always illegal. In fact, every three years the U.S. Copyright Office creates new exemptions from the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) so that people can, legally, circumvent such encryption on various media products.

This is how, just last year, it became legal to "jailbreak" smart phones so that iPhone users could install apps that Apple didn't approve.

Up on the list this time around... creating an exemption which would make it legal to hack or jailbreak 1) gaming consoles like the XBox, 2) tablets like the iPad and Kindle Fire, and 3) decryption software like Handbrake that enable people to make copies of DVDs.

You can imagine that the intellectual property owners fight these exemptions tooth-and-nail. But what's surprising is that, rather than harming their businesses, these exemptions often actually enhance them by exposing more people to their products, allowing the companies to generate greater derivative revenue. For example, as Wired describes...

Apple cried foul prior to the Copyright Office granting the mobile phone exemption, saying the loophole would ruin its business model. Jailbreaking allows phone owners to run any apps on their phone they want, even if they’re neither approved by Apple nor sold in iTunes.

Following Apple's 2009 claim, however, more than 18 billion apps have been downloaded from Apple. In 2009, there were 1 billion app downloads.

This is an issue that raises emotional passions. Many people, no doubt, find it inconceivable that such exemptions to the law, effectively enabling mass piracy, are ever granted. Meanwhile, plenty of others find it equally ridiculous that it's against the law in the first place to be prohibited from "opening the hood and tweaking the engine" of products which they already own and legally purchased.

But whenever you have two sides opposed in such stark contrast to each others' positions, an arbiter is necessary to find the middle ground - and in this case that arbiter is the U.S. Copyright Office (whose bureaucrats can hardly be mistaken for a bunch of anarchist hackers). Thus, this holiday season, when it becomes officially legal to hack iPads and XBoxes and Kindles and movie DVDs, just remember... this is the way the process is supposed to work.