Jan 5

Clash Of The Titans, Baby!

Posted by A Writer


I've been running around like crazy the last couple of days, and today when I sat down to write this post my mind was so frazzled that I couldn't decide what I wanted to talk about.  The primaries are pretty cool, but don't have a whole lot to do with writing, literature, music, or academics (and don't tell me that Chuck Norris's endorsement of Mike Huckabee counts as a cultural reference.  The last thing you want is Chuck Norris finding out that you said that, because he'll track you down and kick your ass through the InternetAll the kids say he can do that, so it must be true.).  And my blog isn't about technology, even though technology is also cool (MP3 players FTW), so I can't do some rant about what sucks about the iPod.  But just as I was about to give up and start writing a top ten list (God help me), from the heavens above an angelic form did descend and point to the previous sentence.

The iPod? 


And sure enough, a quick search later and I found what I was looking for–a brand spanking new lawsuit leveled against Apple for its unusually restrictive copy-protection policies.

Ooh, goody.

Yep, it turns out that a class-action suit has been filed against Steve Jobs' brainchild claiming that the inability of iPods to play .WMA files, and the inability of iTunes-purchased songs to play on anything other than an iPod, violates U.S. antitrust laws.  Doing this has unfairly constricted the market and made it more difficult for other companies to compete (well, that and the fact that some of the rival MP3 players look like this. Glurps ), and the suit (filed by Stacie Somers, who bought her iPod at a Target and obviously is the Erin Brockovich of portable music device owners) demands that Apple forfeit the money it earned from this and, of course, pay damages to the plaintiffs.

Er…I thought you said this wasn't a technology blog…

Just you wait, my friends–this is where it really gets interesting.  Because the lawsuit doesn't really argue against the infamous Digital Rights Management (DRM), which prevents songs from being freely distributed and played on any platform; no, it argues that Apple isn't supporting the right kind of DRM–specifically .WMA, which just happens to be Microsoft's proprietary DRM system.  Yes, as it turns out the real bankroll behind this lawsuit (Stacie Somers doesn't own her own law firm, if you can believe that) is a certain Redmond, WA based company which knows a little something about antitrust violations.  Not since Godzilla took on King Kong have we seen this kind of a fight.  Microsoft vs. Apple–let the battle for glory and honor begin.       

At this point you're all probably audibly yawning (and thanks, I can feel the love).  Who gives a damn about two absurdly wealthy corporations fighting over who gets to eat more at the trough?  But this is where we move away from technology, because this is really much more than an issue about whose muscles are bigger.  On its face the lawsuit is absurd; as Mitch Wagner points out, to be a monopoly "Apple would have to be a gatekeeper controlling consumers' access to digital music and video, and that's simply not the case."  And it's pretty ridiculous for Microsoft to claim that Apple is violating antitrust laws (I should just stop the sentence there, but I won't) when it's asking the courts to have Apple put in a different format…which presumably would also be, uh, violating antitrust laws.  Welcome to Bizarro World.  But beyond the merits of the lawsuit, what about this mysterious DRM?  What is this all about in the first place?

Why, profit.

Yep.  DRM is allegedly intended to protect the intellectual property of various artists from being stolen [sic] by keeping people from distributing songs, movies, and other such things on file-sharing networks like Limewire or Kazaa.  DRM means you can only buy and play stuff from the people who control DRM–not the artists, by the way, but the industry which owns them.  And the music industry hasn't stopped there; the RIAA (which stands for "Rich Irritatingly Arrogant Attackers," I think.  All the kids say that's what it means.) has been in the business of running around the Internet suing everyone with a pulse who's illegally downloaded a song or two, or a thousand…but often just one or two.  (Among the hardened criminals it's taken down is this single mother, who I frankly feel relieved is off our virtual streets.)  And the argument is a good one–artists work hard producing their music, and stealing from them is wrong.  I can get behind that; I don't want my work stolen, whether it's from my band or from my books.  And besides, kids, stealing is wrong!  Where's the controversy here?

Well, that's just it…if it were just a matter of saying that stealing is wrong, we could all nod our heads and go home happy.  But the question has to be asked:  who is stealing from whom?  And if you take a look at who is really angry here, you'll be surprised to note that it tends not to be the artists themselves.  Oh, the big ones are mad: Metallica is one of the biggest examples of a band that went after its own fans for illegal downloads (and that certainly helped their public image, by the way).  But most independent artists are not only not opposed to downloads of their music, they actually encourage it.  Even some larger bands have gotten into the act.  Why?  Because as it turns out, what really angers the RIAAs and Apples and Microsofts of the world is not that the people are "stealing" from the artists, but that they are stealing from them: the companies who, frankly, have been stealing from the artists for years.  Go ask Billy Joel what he thinks about the typical music industry executive.  Or go talk to Vertical Horizon.  Or Bob Dylan.  Or Radiohead.  Or any one of thousands and thousands of bands and independent musicians.  The truth is that the music industry has been screwing the artists for so long with unfavorable contracts and incredible middleman markups that many musicians have literally been ruined by the process.  And this in part explains the level of anger and ridiculous overpursuit of the evil downloading single mothers of the world: no one hates being thieved from (apologies for the language mangling) more than a thief, and the music industry has been doing that like it's going out of style for decades.  The message from the RIAA is not that stealing is wrong; it's that anyone else stealing is wrong.  They'll excuse me if I'm underwhelmed by that kind of "battle of conscience."   

Now don't get me wrong; I don't think that running around downloading and uploading materials is a wonderful trend, or that we should promote stealing.  I can't afford to be that charitable, anyway.  But the hypocrisy involved in the music industry's behavior is so breathtaking, and the artists themselves are so generally against this "sue at all costs" mentality, that it's hard for me to get all fired up about someone downloading and listening to one of my songs for free–especially since that same industry has been overcharging for so many years (do you think it costs a company $15 to produce a CD?  No…try around five dollars, after all the promotion is done and salaries paid.  I think companies could probably squeak by with only a hundred percent markup, say.  I'd be willing to take up a collection if they were having trouble making ends meet.).  Lost in the holy war between Gates and Jobs is a simple truth: neither company would even exist were it not for the people working for them, the inventors and producers of their software and hardware.  And no one in the music industry would have a job if not for the people who write and perform the music which the rest of the public wants to buy.

In other words, O fickle CEOs: know thyselves, and stop fighting over whose method of abusing the artist is a better one.  And for heaven's sake, leave the single mothers alone.  Britney Spears has enough to deal with.  

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