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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2005/11/12
by Jesse Jarnow

Digital Rights Management and Other Digressions

Before it was revealed that the digital rights management system included on many recent Sony CDs automatically installed insidious spyware deep in a PC’s digital gearwork, they seemed too stupid to even consider. That is, mostly harmless. Like the home listening equivalent of dealing with the hassle of going to a rock show at a sports arena, PC users had to install Sony’s proprietary software in order to even listen to the music they’d paid for (such that they couldn’t put it on their iPods or make copies for friends or generally listen to it in the same fashion in which they probably listen to their rest of their music).
Making it hard for one’s customers to use one’s product is generally frowned upon in the business world, and an especially dumb move to make when — without much effort — consumers can circumvent the problem entirely by downloading the whole album for free. But, you know, no harm done, and we can pat the labels on their bald little heads for trying. But putting spyware on the albums to report back to you just in case someone tries to copy it? Fuck you, man. I don’t want your bullshit major label rock anyway, and I won’t feel guilty about stealing it anymore. Go fuck yourself. It’s tempting to say the same to the artists (first on the list of offenders, Anastasio-comma-Trey). But I won’t. Next time, you guys oughta know better.
I visited my Aunt and Uncle in Los Angeles recently. Often, when I get caught up in trying to explain something like digital rights management to her — or an album, a movie, a website, a piece of software, or hardware — she’ll look at me, pat me metaphorically on my shaggy little head, and say "Jess, we live in different worlds."
It’s true, and it’s good to be reminded, but it makes me wonder how big my world is. DRM caused a shitstorm around here, but do people elsewhere care? Culturally, I don’t know if I’m living in a big city or a small town that thinks it’s a big city. It’s hard to tell, y’understand. Are there boundaries? Is it a generational thing, or only a certain subgroup of that? It seems like 70% of the people I know are on MySpace, for example. Does that mean 70% of American 27-year-olds are on MySpace? Of course not. (Though maybe they are. Why else would Fox spend $580 million to purchase it?)
It mediated my whole experience of the DRM issue, for example: how I learned about it (via blogs, emails, and instant messenger chats), and especially about how I looked for more information about it (at real-life Hitchhiker’s Guide Wikipedia, whose thoroughly encyclopedic entry on ‘rootkits’ was updated yesterday). Another world perhaps, but also one fast arriving.
While in Los Angeles, my cousin, her husband, their young daughter, and two hyperactive dogs came for a visit from behind southern California’s Orange Curtain. Both work in education, and talked about how the kids in their schools brought laptops to class with them, and were taught how to research on Google.
Over a separate dinner a month earlier, a high school-aged cousin from the other side of the family told me that she and her classmates no longer pass notes but — when they’re getting reception, anyway — send one another text messages. I like this idea quite a bit, because it means that note-passing isn’t limited to merely the classroom, but creates a school-wide real-time other-world where students can communicate. (It’s also another method for cheating on tests, but that’s really just a subset of teenage communications.) Worlds abound.
En route to Los Angeles from Boulder, my iPod disappeared (or, perhaps, was disappeared for me, but that’s another story entirely). A new one was procured.
To once again quote John Perry Barlow: "I think [that if] there’s something you like, that you think out to be there in a hundred years, deserves being part of the human heritage, you almost have a moral responsibility to see that it gets digitized and put in as many places as possible."
At no time was that lesson more underscored than when I had to stock my new iPod. In Boulder, I had visited an old friend I hadn’t seen in several years. Using PodWorks, I copied a hearty chunk of songs and albums off of my iPod for her that I’d discovered since the last time we hung, music I hold near and dear — The Creek Drank the Cradle by Iron and Wine, A Ghost is Born by Wilco, ‘Private Idaho’ by the B-52s, and others.
And — when my iPod went away — the music was all still sitting on my harddrive, ready to be recopied onto the new one. When I returned home, I realized that much of the rest of my music collection was sitting on a series of mp3 compilations I’d burned for my ex-neighbor. Both were labor-saving devices, to be sure, but both demonstrated, at a simple level, how music gets lost, and how it might be made to stay.
What good is an idea or a song if it’s not circulating? I think Barlow’s notion is a valuable one, which is why I have no problem reproducing it in another article (even if that article resides on the same central server as the last one). Still, it’s a general lesson that is worth considering in all matters digital. It also makes for a curiously intellectual justification of piracy, but one worth considering on dozens of levels, ranging from Sony’s DRM issues to publishers’ hubbub over Google Print, to the Brazilian government’s battles with pharmaceutical companies.
When music became digitized — that is, broken into individual files and distributed — songs became liberated from their bodies, compact discs becoming drained rinds. One of the many reasons the iPod has been so successful is because — like a Victrola, like a Walkman, like a ’57 Thunderbird with a blasting AM radio — it gives music a new physical form that captures that imagination, a form that it had been lacking since the invention of Napster.
In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," German theorist Walter Benjamin wondered (about film, specifically) whether industrially made art could have what he called (roughly) an "aura." The answer — as any music or film dork can tell you — is undoubtedly "yes." As it was before the invention of film, the creation and communication of that aura continues to be the central problem of art (though more times than not, I think, it is something created by each individual reader/listener/viewer, as opposed to the artist).
As record companies struggle to define their role and relevance in the 21st century, they must find a way to create an aura about their product, something that makes the purchase of an album an experience unique from downloading it. Like it or not, Sony has found it with its evil DRM system, its proprietary software the digital version of manually lifting the tone arm of a record player. The nostalgia ends there, though, as the medium’s aura overpowers and sullies whatever music it was trying to protect.
Are we allowed to call recording for Sony evil again yet?

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