Electronic F—wit Foundation

But what if hamburgers could be infinitely reproduced? Then it's not stealing!It feels wrong, somehow, to find fault with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, because at least in principle, its existence is essential. The internet has gotten to be so ubiquitous so quickly, that we need an advocacy group to make sure that technology doesn’t outpace practical concerns like consumers’ rights. And we can’t leave it all to the big corporations and telecommunications companies to control, if only because it would prove all those smarmy cyberpunk and sci-fi authors correct, and they’d be insufferable. Besides, the EFF does more good than harm: while Greenpeace is conducting eco-terrorism and PETA is breaking into companies and freeing test animals, the worst the EFF usually does is whine incessantly about digital rights management.

But sometimes that’s enough. The latest “issue” is the new release of iTunes, which introduced all those promised EMI-published tracks in higher-bitrate, DRM-free forms for 30 cents more a pop. Ars Technica and others pointed out that while the files are without DRM, they do include personal data about the purchaser: your name, and the e-mail address used for your iTunes account. The EFF dug through one of the files and found additional “mystery” data attached.

This alarmed “privacy advocates,” a group which before the ascendency of the internet were known simply as “crazy people.” How dare the Big Brother at Apple insert MY PERSONAL INFORMATION into the Kelly Clarkson White Stripes tracks that I PURCHASED and should have the RIGHT to do WHATEVER I PLEASE with them!

Which is, like so many of the “privacy concerns” vectored by EFF through BoingBoing.net and into the collective paranoid subconscious, so much bullshit. But this is actually harmful bullshit, instead of the typical roll-your-eyes-and-ignore it variety. Because DRM does suck. It’s not the baby-raping, digital ebola virus that Cory Doctorow and his ilk make it out to be, but it is an unnecessary inconvenience. And it does punish the majority of honest people because of the actions of a dishonest minority.

But the latest round of complaints just throws doubt over all of the legitimate complaints about DRM. Because there is absolutely no rational objection to embedding a name and e-mail address into a music file bought over an online service. None. Period. Exclamation point. The only way you could object to this is if you planned to “share” your music with a stranger. And as one of the comments to this post about the non-issue puts it so well: when you agree to the iTunes Store’s EULA, you agree not to distribute your files to anyone else. Don’t like it, don’t buy it. End of story.

The only argument in the DRM “war” that was gaining any traction was the one that said you should be able to listen to music you buy on any device you choose. That’s a totally valid concern, and something worth arguing in favor of. The new scheme lets you do that (almost — the files are still in AAC format instead of the more common MP3). And by complaining about the new scheme, they’re just revealing their earlier arguments to be a lie. “Okay, yeah, we said we just wanted to be able to listen to our songs on non-iPods, but what we really wanted to do was put the songs up on BitTorrent. Which should be OUR RIGHT!!! Information wants to be free! Also: Screw the RIAA!”

The even more bullshit response from the aforementioned privacy advocates just comes across as desperate and silly: “what if somebody steals your iPod?!? They’ll have your e-mail address!” Of course, having a $300 piece of property stolen is more a concern to me than getting some spam e-mail. But wait: “what if they then put the unprotected files up on BitTorrent? I’ll be liable!”

Which as anybody can see is a perfectly valid claim, except they just don’t take it far enough. What if somebody steals my iPod, gets my personal info, then goes and makes a snuff film and puts it up on YouTube, using the song as its soundtrack, then puts “THIS PERSON WAS KILLED BY” followed by my name and e-mail address? Then I’ll be the victim of theft, sued for copyright infringement, and put into prison for murder! And all because of Apple’s greed!

The one thing that becomes clearer and clearer to me is that as fast as technology is progressing, the real advancements are being made in rationalization. I keep reading comments in blogs and message boards making unfathomable leaps in logic, twisting basic ethics to such an obscene degree that it’s unrecognizable as something real human beings would say. And all to justify getting something for nothing — wait, scratch that, not justify it, to make it out as if it were somehow noble. It’s the big corporations who’re to blame, for invading our privacy! If companies didn’t charge so much for this stuff, then we wouldn’t have to take it! It’s not hurting the artists, it’s only hurting the people who are making money off of those artists’ effort! We’re sticking it to The Man!

My favorite of the moment is the argument that because digital media is infinitely reproducible, making a copy of it without paying for it is not stealing. You can try to point out that while the song/videogame/TV show may be infinitely reproducible, the work that people put into paying for it, making it, and distributing it is not. And when honest people pay for a CD, DVD, or download, they’re compensating the creators for their effort, not for the actual physical media. But we’ll have none of that! Now that we’re in the digital world, the rules have changed, and your 20th century notions of theft and property and copyright and even currency are no longer valid!

At least, until it comes to them. Then the old rules apply. It doesn’t matter what the EULA says, they bought that CD, DVD, or download, so they own it. All of a sudden, it goes from being infinitely reproducible to being very tangible, and they’re entitled to do whatever they would do with a bookshelf or a car, like re-sell it to somebody else or let someone else “borrow” it. The thing that had no value when it belonged to the publishers, suddenly has a very real value.

And at that point I just get frustrated and give up, before the more traditional attempts at justification (“the people that pirate software wouldn’t have bought it anyway!”) set in. So I just have two things to say:

  1. If you’re going to take something without paying, a.k.a. steal, then just do it, dammit, and then shut the hell up about it. Don’t try to couch it in bullshit about your rights as a consumer, or as an attack on an unehtical publisher, or say that it’s okay because it doesn’t really hurt anyone else. Hurting artists’ & publishers’ financial livelihood is one thing, but the damage you’re doing to the public perception of ethics is even worse.
    The one thing everybody can agree on is that there’s no 100% fool-proof technology against piracy. So the only real defense we have against it is the fact that most people are honest and will pay for good work. Don’t try to chip away at that.
  2. When I’m doing a vanity search on Google and come up with entry after entry after entry with a “cracked” version of a game that I invested months if not years of my time and huge chunks of my sanity into creating, I don’t think, “Ha ha, way to stick it to those greedy publisher fatcats!” or even “Oh well. You probably wouldn’t have bought it anyway.” I think that I want to start punching you in the face and never stop.

Disclaimer: That picture of the Hamburglar is copyrighted by the McDonald’s corporation. Fair use! I know my rights!