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Last Updated: Friday, 6 February, 2004, 12:11 GMT
Why tech firms are out of tune
Music-lovers will lose out because of computer manufacturers' new commitment to digital rights management says Bill Thompson.

Alicia Keys, AP
Alicia Keys performed during Ms Fiorina's speech
Normally it would take a political appeal, or a tribute to some old time rock and roll legend, to get Dr Dre, The Edge, Sheryl Crow and Alicia Keys onto the same stage.

But when they all showed up at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week it was entirely for their own benefit.

They were there as stooges to Carly Fiorina, the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, as she made her conference keynote address and spoke movingly of how her company is going to 'democratize technology and empower digital revolutionaries everywhere.'

In an impassioned address, punctuated with a video of the future of home entertainment and a short performance by the talented Ms Keys, Fiorina tried to position HP at the centre of what she claims is a revolution in the way that technology is being used in daily life.

She talked about the ways that photography has changed from a chemical and physical process to one that is, as she put it 'digital, mobile and virtual'.

She waxed lyrical about the joy of hearing a song in Starbucks and downloading it wirelessly 'for a buck'.

Choice and control

And she claimed that the way entertainment is 'created, distributed, managed and consumed' is changing forever, in ways that highlight 'the power of democracy', and are about 'giving power the people.'

Bill Thompson
Real freedom comes from below, not from the marketing department of a large corporation.
Then she went and spoiled it all by committing HP to putting digital rights management software in every one of its consumer devices, encrypting any recorded content stored on HP systems so that it can't be transferred to other computers or players, stopping people copying their old videos to DVD, and even making sure that HP home computers can't record broadcast television programmes.

This revolution is clearly not about people taking control, as Fiorina claimed - it is about the entertainment cartel exerting even more control over what we, the people, can do with its expensive and often over-rated products.

It's about restricting our freedom to use digital content in ways that fit with our lifestyles and choices. And it is about forcing us to pay more, and repeatedly, for stuff that we want to watch or listen to.

It is also, crucially, about limiting our freedom to play with the stuff we've bought.

Control freaks

Don't even think about trying to load a DRM-protected song into a music sequencer so you can play around with the tune, sample a few beats or seek inspiration from it.

Forget the idea of making a digital collage of video fragments or sound samples from DVDs or TV shows.

And don't even contemplate making a mix CD of your favourite tracks for your girlfriend or boyfriend to listen to when you're not around.

In the rights-protected world which Fiorina and her marketing department have dreamed up, we are to be passive consumers of expensively created content, not active participants.

The rights will be managed in a way that maximises revenue, not creativity or enjoyment.

The major problem with digital rights management is not the technology itself but the fact that the limits which it puts on the use of the protected files are outside the normal scope of copyright law.

Thanks to the European Union Copyright Directive and the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it's illegal to break the protection on a music file or ebook even if the purpose is solely to do something which copyright law allows.

If I crack the protection on a copy of Moby-Dick to make a large print copy for a blind relative, then I'm doing something illegal.

Protest vote

The result is that the balance between the individual user and the copyright-owning corporations has been completely skewed, and the DRM systems that Carly Fiorina loves so much will make it impossible for us to use

I used to think that our fears over the ways that the entertainment industry were cracking down on file sharing and other copyright violations were unfounded, because the computing companies would refuse to see their products crippled by the need to keep the Recording Industry Association of America happy.

HP boss Carly Fiorina, AP
HP is committed to using copyright control systems in its hardware
I was wrong.

Apple's iTunes is apparently a great service but it doesn't actually make Apple any money because of the high level of royalty they have to pay to the music industry for every song downloaded.

Microsoft used its presence at CES to announce its own range of DRM-enabled software, and now it is clear that HP too has bowed to the power of the cartel.

If the industry won't sort this out, then it is time for the people to act, both individually and through our representatives.

Consumer boycotts and government action are the only way we are going to re-establish the balance between copyright holders and those of us who want to listen to, share and be inspired by music, movies and literature.

It's time for all who believe in real freedom of expression to tell Carly Fiorina and her friends in the music industry that being a 'digital revolutionary' means more than just doing what she thinks we should be permitted to.

Real freedom comes from below, not from the marketing department of a large corporation.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.



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