||Have Consumers Gone Spineless? Part 2
January 24, 2002 Paul Sullivan
Summary: Part 2 is here, where Paul lays the heavy mallet on companies that take advantage of industry and consumers, and the people who allow them to do so (that would be us). In this concluding segment, we look beyond the computing industry and take a hard look at our own roles and responsibilities in this matter.
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 4 )|
We covered the EULA (End User License Agreement) in part one, and touched on a few other possibilities towards the end. In part two, we’ll finish up the computer stuff and delve into some of the home entertainment issues that confront us.
Towards the end of this article, I want to get into why we consumers seem to be willing to let these things happen to us in the first place. How come big companies like Microsoft and AT&T have been allowed to stomp us into the ground with so little as a peep from us? Does our own complacency doom us to a future of domination by these big guys? Are we really that spineless???
More Computer Craziness
For many, many years now, we have had some form of copy protection on PC’s to prevent people from stealing software from the hardworking people who produce it. And for just as many years, we have had innovative people finding ways around those forms of copy protection.
I remember back in the day, Central Point Software started out with a program called Copy 2 PC. This nifty gem allowed businesses and consumers to make working backup copies of their expensive software so that in case the master floppy disks went nuts (which happened all the time in the days of 360k disks), you could use these nice, fresh backups. The program usually did not strip the copy protection off, it simply allowed you to backup the whole thing, warts and all, so that you had a functioning duplicate.
When companies like Lotus became more advanced in their copy protection methods, Central Point came out with a very slick piece of hardware, the Copy 2 PC ISA Board. This board plugged into an ISA slot and was wired in between the floppy drive and the floppy connector so that every bit of data traveled through it. This way, the board and software were able to intercept the data at the hardware level and ensure a clean, complete copy. Again, the key was that it did not necessarily strip away the copy protection, it simply made a copy of the entire setup, bit by bit. It was a rather elegant solution for such an early time, and it bailed us out over and over again, because in those days, floppies failed all the time, and each program cost our company $400-$500 each.
About that same time, there was a product called AutoCAD. It was very expensive, but soon became all the rage with Engineers all over the country. When it first was introduced to us where I worked, it had no copy protection on it whatsoever. The goal was to get it in the hands of as many people as possible to help make the product a success. However, once the market was saturated, a funny thing happened. Just when we became heavily dependent on it, AutoDesk, the company that produced the product, introduced a copy protection device called the Hardware Lock. It plugged into one of your data ports, Serial if I remember, and gave the “ok” code to the software once it was properly detected.
Customers were pretty miffed. They paid thousands for a program only to be told that they had to be “baby sat” by an electronic monitor? The sad thing is, AutoDesk probably would have gotten away with it if it had not been for a simple problem of the unit not being reliable. PC’s were not all that reliable back then to begin with, but throw a device into the mix that gets in the way of your Serial port? You had trouble with plotters, digitizers, the works. The outcry was not over copy protection really, but over the fact that their copy protection scheme wreaked havoc on their existing hardware, and a production oriented business just can’t stand for something like that. If it costs them money, by golly, they will yell, but not if it is “only” about principle.
SIDEBAR: Central Point was an awesome company. They may have been high on the copy protection game early, but got into utilities and gave Norton a huge run for the money. When PC Tools for Windows 3.1 came out, they were on the top. Too bad they got bought out and left us with fewer worthwhile options...
| Utter Madness||Page:: ( 2 / 4 )|
A Bitter Legacy
Copy protection is just the start of the increasing madness. Companies have gotten far more ruthless than that. They get you hooked on things by virtually giving them away with no strings attached, and then once you become dependent on it, they yank the hook and reel you in.
Let’s take a look at just a few of the modern things that have come up. First, let’s get a handle on Windows XP, shall we? You have Product Activation to deal with. No biggie some say, but others are not so sure. Why should you have to call Microsoft if you upgrade or replace your machine? What’s the big idea with actually disabling the software if it thinks you did something wrong and then forcing you to plead your case back to Microsoft? You paid for the license after all, right? How can they just turn it off like that?
Why do they make it so hard to uninstall all of their “preferred” applications? Why do they keep integrating everything to such a degree that they become interdependent on each other? Why do they keep shoving Passport down your throat all the time? And for the love of money, why do they keep insisting that their XP operating system is the most stable, most secure software they have ever made, when in fact, they know it isn’t really true? They put out this new version and try to force you to upgrade by not allowing you to buy previous versions and by telling you that if you have a version older than Windows ME, you won’t be able to get an upgrade price after the first of the year. We have paid cash for their operating system, and it should not matter if we have 95, 98 or 98 SE, we should be able to get the upgrade price, right?
It’s Not Just Microsoft
There are many more examples of bad corporate behavior. Take a look at Gracenote, formerly CDDB. For years individual users put data into the system so others could use that data for automatic lookups of album information on the web. It was a fantastic example of a community in action, working to help each other out for the benefit of all. Companies like Adaptec and Musicmatch took advantage of the free lookup features and integrated the calls into their software. Then, when people get reliant on it and the momentum seems unstoppable, some folks get together, change the name from CDDB to Gracenote and go all proprietary on us, telling us that they want us to pay for the privilege of accessing the data that we entered in the first place!
Remember the Unisys/CompuServe battle with the users of the GIF format? Unisys had patented the LZW compression technique in 1985, but did not inform CompuServe of this until 1993. By that time, the GIF format had become a hugely popular web format, and the financial implications were staggering. CompuServe came to terms with Unisys, but in turn, informed other software makers that they would need to pay a fee to use the GIF format and by paying that fee, they would not be subject to prosecution by Unisys. Most companies ended up paying, but some have been working to develop and implement the PNG format in response, which would be an open source project, with no licensing fees or restrictions.
Linux has had a few ups and downs recently. There have been some Linux distribution makers who were stung so badly by the dot-com-bomb that in their desperation, they have been looking for ways to charge users for the operating system beyond what would normally be acceptable. When Corel first came out with their Linux distribution, they did not provide the source code on their site. Suse Linux refuses to allow their “basic” version to be downloaded for free at all, which is in direct violation of the spirit of GNU and open source. Other Linux distributors are seeking to collect licensing fees for users of their distributions, something which is a betrayal on its very face. Others may add one or two applications that they have written in a proprietary manner to a distribution and try to force users to pay excessive prices for a distribution that should be free for download or available in stores for a reasonable packaging fee. It seems that even in the strongest bastions of the open source movement, there are those that would let greed rule the day.
SIDEBAR: The Open Source movement may be taking a very serious hit because of betrayal from the inside. How anyone with a conscious can take the work that others did with the best of intentions for the free software community and turn it into a proprietary profit package is just beyond me. Why is honor so hard to come by?
| Entertainment||Page:: ( 3 / 4 )|
It Used To Be Fun
I’ve ranted about music before, but the anguish just does not end. Huge record companies are working to copy protect every single musical release they have. How do they do it? Many are doing it by actually damaging the music and relying on error correction technology embedded in playback devices to put all the pieces back together and make it sound whole again. So let me get this straight - they are purposefully selling Damaged Goods to consumers and hoping that it will play back ok on most systems? Does this strike anybody as being a really sick and horrible thing? They are giving us Crippled music and telling us we have to live with it? For decades we have been recording tracks off of the radio and making custom mixes. We did the same with LP’s, Casettes and now CD’s. Why all of a sudden do these disgustingly rich companies want to stop us from doing this? How can they possibly justify it? Even normal, legal folks who just want to have the flexibility to listen to their music like they have for years are getting hammered by this.
DVD’s are another area that is getting out of hand. I can sort of understand the bit about wanting to prevent people from copying these movies, but the way they have gone about copy protecting them is atrocious. Copy protection on these things has been buggy from the get-go and really does nothing more than get in the way. I remember when the first batch of DVD players came out and could not play many of the new releases because of tweaking they did in the copy protection code. Why should people have to pay money to have chips updated in their players just so they can view movies they have already paid for?
Not only is the copy protection a pain, but the fact that they are trying to throw people into prison who figure out how to break that copy protection is abominable! We have been able to go down to the library and learn how to make nuclear bombs for nearly 50 years, and nobody is sending those authors to jail. Writing the instructions is a first amendment free speech issue. It only becomes a crime when someone acts on that information in a manner that is illegal. How come a programmer who figures out the code is barred by the courts from simply sharing that information with the public? They are not advocating piracy, simply bringing knowledge forth right? The founding fathers must be rolling in their graves! How can this be possible? Look no further than these same huge conglomerates and money-sucking political action committees and members of congress.
The Politics Of Personal Freedom
For the first time in a long time, Congress is making a difference. Unfortunately, it is only doing something for those who pay them the big bucks, like the lobbyists. There have been some heinous pieces of legislation passed over the years, but one of the most brutal has to be the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. It is perhaps the most sweeping copyright legislation passed in a generation, and surprisingly, the ultra-conservative right isn’t to blame for this one – President Clinton is. He signed this legislation in 1998 and ever since then, a serious chill has been cast upon the country.
Some may say that it is designed to protect intellectual property, but most of us know better. It is designed to circumvent the constitutional protection of free speech. It prevents an open discussion of flaws in copy protection schemes, for example. It prevents you from publishing detailed dissenting theses from scientific organizations. Oh, they claimed there were exceptions, but in point of fact, the law has been used to silence opposing viewpoints from those who challenge technologies and the claims of its makers. For example, if a writer decides to challenge the claims that DVD copy protection is state of the art, they are prevented from publishing that information. If a company claims their software security is unbreakable and a journalist shows that it can be broken and how, it may be jail time for him or her. Heck, a Princeton University professor is even being silenced over fears that he will be prosecuted for publishing the findings of a study regarding the technology behind the copy protection methods used on digital audio files. There are cases coming to the forefront that involve researchers trying to analyze copy protected code in medical devices so that they can be sure that the devices actually work as promised. Problem is, the medical equipment maker is suing to stop this so that they can be assured of not taking a bad publicity hit. They seem less concerned about saving lives than keeping their stock price high...
SIDEBAR: WinDVD 2.3 for the PC actually plays videos back clearer than the newer versions of the same software. Why? Rumor has it that they were chastised for having playback that was so high quality, it encouraged piracy on the computer. They ended up releasing a “dumbed down” version under pressure...
| Conclusions||Page:: ( 4 / 4 )|
The Logical Song
When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
a miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily,
joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible,
logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
clinical, intellectual, cynical.
That old song by Supertramp really does sum things up nicely. When you were young, things did seem much simpler and amazing. You were so willing to trust. But as you got older, you began to see things a new way. The real world encroached on the fantasy world, blew the roof off and dropped it on your head.
You realized that restaurant food never looked as good as the pictures. That Grandma didn’t have real teeth, that Jack never did climb any beanstalk and that Pro Wrestling was fake (What?!?! –ed). You’d spend all that time begging your parents to buy 10 boxes of that sugary cereal so you could send in the box tops only to learn that the plastic decoder ring they sent you looked nothing like it did on the back of the box and it didn’t really work all that well anyway. Your teacher would blame and punish you for something another kid did even though you swore to her that you didn’t do it.
Over the years the fantasy world got farther and farther away from the world you ended up living in. You grew up with a yearning, a wanting to believe that somehow, someway, there were still happy endings and pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. Many of us can sympathize, and some of us can even empathize, because we too had been taken to the emotional cleaners when so many of the things we believed in were torn away from us by reality. We want things to end happily ever after and believe that people want what’s best for us.
A Call To Action!
Why do I ask if consumers have gone spineless? Because it seems like we are sitting around like sheep letting big company shepherds with huge dollars and suspect agendas herd us up and lead us to the slaughter! Year after year, decade after decade, consumers are lulled into complacency by slick promotions and low entry costs.
So what do we do about it? Stop letting big companies push you around! Suck it up and grow a backbone instead of letting these bullies take advantage of your complacency! Don’t you realize that you, the individual consumer, have rights? That consumers that band together in groups can actually affect change in our society? You do? Oh, I see. Then how come hardly any of you bother to back up the words with action? Why does it take action from Phillips, the makers of the CD format, to fight back? They are telling these record companies that their copy protection defies the standard, and they are going to continue making machines that bypass that copy protection so that consumers are not injured. How come we have to rely on other companies to stand up for us instead of doing it ourselves?
Come on folks! Get involved! Write actual letters and mail them. Send them to the record companies, send them to your Senators and Representatives, both state and local. Write letters to the editor of local and national newspapers and encourage everyone you know to do the same. Stop worrying about saving every last dime you can and focus on supporting those individuals and companies that are trying to stand up to the big boys. Stop being fickle or selfish and think of the common good. Refuse to pay money for copy protected music CD’s and refuse to subscribe to cable or satellite TV packages that don’t let you record and play back broadcasts for personal use. Don’t let Microsoft and other companies sucker you into subscriptions. Stop blindly purchasing the latest and greatest based on hype. Take a stand, stick with the older versions and refuse to play their game. If we do all of those things then maybe you can have a real impact and make a difference for the rest of us.
SIDEBAR: Are you content to sit back and take it on the chin just so you can save a little bit of money? Or are you willing to put yourself on the line and take a stand?
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