Thursday, February 25, 2010

The License of Everyday Objects

It's amazing how we can extract money from people, keep them working beyond the point where previous generations would just give up, go home and toss the ball around with the kid.  "It's not so bad.  You've got a credit card.  Go charge that flat screen TV and that Playstation.  It's something to take your mind off the dehumanizing box stores you spend 80 hours a week in." 

Then we escape for hundreds of hours every month into World of Warcraft.  At $15 a month, that's a bargain! 

Why are we shopping at Wal-Mart for our toys when we could be checking out books at the library, taking walks with our children, teaching each other how to cook?  You don't need a Playstation to decode a book for you, nor a flat screen TV to display it on.  The brain is enough, provided it's been properly grown and seasoned. 

And the toys we pay for--we don't even have the satisfaction of "owning" them.  They are licensed vehicles for providing us with licensed content.  Don't want to click "accept" on that EULA?  Well then you've just gone and wasted a couple hundred dollars on that PC, haven't you?  (God help you if you financed it and agreed to pay interest on the thing.)  These devices connect us up, collect our data, process it for re-cycling and then sell it to marketers who use the very same toys to sell us more toys.  It's dazzling!  It's brilliant!  It's a freak-show!

There's been a lot of talk about the information economy over the past twenty years, but unfortunately it's all a lie.  I say unfortunately because we've bet so much of our country's future on this information economy. 

We used to be a rich country, the sort of country that imported raw materials and exported finished products.  Now we've decided to let China do the making, lowering tariffs and trade barriers so we can get our DVD players and digital cameras for next to nothing, from a land where child labor comes cheap. 

All we wanted in exchange was for them to buy our culture.  We were tired of making things.  (All that sweat and talent and expensive grown up labor.)  Better to make music and movies.  Spread our message of democracy and high-octane pulse-pounding action to the world!  DVDs are so easy to make, any kid with a computer can do it.  So we asked China to protect our intellectual property.  "Please China, you're so big and handsome.  We'll buy all your stuff from you.  You buy all our movies from us.  Just promise us you won't let your peasants make bootleg copies and sell them on the sidewalk, OK?  Because that would mean we've lowered our trade barriers for nothing.  Ok?  Promise?"

The lie of the information economy is that people pay for content.  Most of us pay for form.  We pay for the heft and the smell and the texture of the leather bound book.  We pay for the newspaper to carry and rattle around on the subway.  We'll pay for the CD with the shiny case and the liner notes. 

And we'll pay for us an mp3 player or an e-reader too, because it's shiny and new and something to hold in our hands and show off to our friends.  But for the books and music that they stack, thousands upon thousands, within their circuits?  Are you kidding me?  We'd never be able to load our Amazon Kindles up with 1500 books if we had to pay for them all!

Then we look around our homes and wonder: What the hell do we need all that old stuff for?  A shelf full of CDs, scratched and dingy with age.  What a menace!  Newspaper - an ecological disaster!  Shelves and shelves of books - if I ever have to move house again the next tenant can have them all.  My back hurts.  Honestly, the producers of all this stuff should be paying me for storing it here for so long!

So now it's all about the license, with these companies.  They've panicked.  All this content, it's just digital information now, and they've realized that the information economy is a lie.  Information is just ones and zeroes, and the world's full of cheap computers that do nothing better than duplicating ones and zeroes.  They want to give form to their content again, but we've decided we're finished with stuff.  So they have nothing to sell.

So they make you click "I Accept" before using a piece of software.  As if paying for it wasn't enough?  And did you read that agreement before you clicked?  Because we're all criminals now.  That song you listened to over a streaming music service?  Your computer had to download it and copy it several times before it could ever transmit the signal to your speakers.  And yet if you downloaded it over bittorrent instead, the RIAA could fine you $22,500 for that same song, and call you a thief!  They claim this is to protect their artists.  But music is so terrifying now I'm not sure I'll ever listen to another song.

I love things that exist in and of themselves.  I'll pay nothing to watch Evgeny Kissen play Prokofiev on Youtube, but I'd pay $100 a ticket to have him strike the keys of a piano in the same room as me.  Speaking of which, I paid a great deal for my piano, but if someone offered to sell me the blueprints to it I would probably turn them down. 

Once you start thinking in terms of license agreements, it's amazing how rich and wonderful the physical world starts to feel in comparison.  Spend a day in World of Warcraft (I have not done this in quite some time) and consider that every hut, stone, and tree is some corporation's intellectual property.  The entire world waits to be revoked at the whim of a patent attorney. 

Ah, but my typewriter, my piano, my library, my bottle of scotch.  If anyone comes for those I have at least the dignity of a chance to fight them off with my gun and my bullets.  (Confession: I have no gun or bullets.)  And I can use them on my own terms, at my own pace, until they're all worn out and used up.

The existence of physical things form their own agreements.  That's why you don't have to click or sign before you use them.  You have the rights to read that leather bound book, or lend it, or sell it, or use it as a booster seat for your kid, for as long as it holds together.  After that you can take the loose pages and heat your house with them, or stuff them into the walls for insulation, for all the author and publisher care.  The laws of decay and entropy enforce their own license.

And when we pay for them, for the most part, we know just what we're getting. 


  1. Great article, very well written as usual.. The brain IS enough and let's use it and do our living well, unencumbered by the control of the quest for endless entertainment and consuming, living 'on our own terms and at our own pace.'

    What a clever and succinct statement - "The laws of decay and entrophy enforce their own license." Linda

  2. There's just something comforting to me about rows and rows of books, and the smell of paper and ink. I'm a book collector and proud of it.