In the history of American culture, in reality and in our literature, there is a rich history of the misuse of technology for personal gain. Several notable examples come to mind. The father of American rocketry, Robert H. Goddard, in the early part of the 20th century started his experiments with rockets. For decades afterwards, science fiction writers like John W. Campbell (who was the father of Astounding Science Fiction, which later became Analog), Robert Heinlein, and others dreamed of using rockets to travel to the moon. Eventually, around 1950, Heinlein was a technical advisor on a major movie called Destination Moon. Despite (or maybe because of ) mankind’s dreams of space travel, the Germans put this technology to work during World War II and built the best rockets of the day, the V-2, and began launching them with high explosive warheads into downtown London. This example hardly touches the surface of this kind of activity, but it’s one of my favorites because it shows how the most profound dream of mankind, eventual travel to the stars, can be perverted for the sake of world domination.
In the James Bond movie, Moonraker, 1979, (arguably, the worst James Bond movie of all the 20 made to date), Hugo Drax has built a space station and collected there what he thinks are a few of the best, brightest, and healthiest humans. After he’s deployed poison gas, from orbit, on every person on the planet, Drax intends to re-seed the Earth with his own vision of a super race. Bond, of course, has to stop Drax from murdering something like 5+ billion people. Impeccable logic. Absolutely evil.
I like these examples because they are a great starting point for what I want to discuss here. But first, I need to set the stage.
One of the things I have learned is that one has to appeal to a more fundamental rule in ethics in order to evaluate less fundamental values. For example, when discussing gun control, the arguments cannot simply be "I like guns" or "Guns are dangerous." Something more fundamental has to be the guiding philosophy. Even arguments that go back to the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution are insufficient without a more fundamental ethic. In this case, I argue that the fundamental value is that of Adult Responsibility. The Adult Responsibility principle says that educated, self-reliant, and responsible adults should have the right to defend themselves and their families, with force if warranted. Without this principle, which many believe is the real thinking of the authors of the 2nd Amendment, citizens become mere pawns, hiding under their beds, waiting for a police state to take charge of their lives.
Having a core principle like this allows one to weigh the opinions of some and judgments of others. It allows one to take the measure of arguments like: "No one needs a gun. That’s what the police are for." Or, alternatively, " I have a right to own an AK-47."
The Adult Responsibility principle has a collorary. It says that when people abuse their responsibilities, the Government will take that right away from everyone, not just the offenders. What’s worse, as the government systematically relieves the citizens of their rights, due to the abuses of some, their regard for the citizens drops to the point where the government no longer really believes that its citizens are qualified to govern themselves. The combination of an arrogant government and undisciplined citizens is a disaster that countless eloquent writers have warned of countless times.
Now, I’m ready to talk about MP3s. Over the last two years, I have seen every argument that exists justifying the wide spread sharing of music without compensating the authorized owners. The one that most people find the most comfortable is that the recording industry executives are crooks and are not honorably compensating the musicians. What started all this, of course, is the commentary by Courtney Love at Salon in 2000 which exposed how little money musicians actually make and how much the studios make. Based on this compelling expose by Ms. Love, the prevailing feeling by users has been that it’s justified to punish those executives by stealing the music that they sell.
This is an argument that any Al Qaeda member would love. Analogously, their arguments have been something like, "Americans are rich and unholy. We are poor and holy. American executives steal money from the stockholders and destroy the life savings of their employees’ 401(k). The American government oppresses us. So, we are justified in punishing them by crashing aircraft into the monuments of their wealth."
The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it is completely logical, justifies any violent action, but exists at a level that is far too superficial. It is the kind of reasoning that starts wars. The core principle that is ignored is that of respect for human life taught in the Koran and the Bible. Most Judeo-Christians and Muslims understand this principle. Innocent men, women, and children were plainly murdered in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on 9/11/01. Americans also know that when they are attacked, whether it was 12/7/41 or 9/11/01, they are at war and will fight back. These are the principles that civilized society has developed over the last hundred years.
In a similar fashion, let’s look at the logic of stealing MP3s. Do we really believe that stealing music and sharing it with the rest of the planet on P2P servers will really punish recording studio executives? Can we expect them to react by saying: "Gee, our revenues and profits are way down. Perhaps we should now pay our musicians more."
There certainly exists a core principle of respecting the property of others and compensating for their artistic creation. (Even if the middleman is suspect and the details of copyright law change from time to time.) This principle is time honored and exists in the framework of civilized society. If the rules need changing, this is done by working to change the rules by politics, activism, persuasion, and lobbying. However, the youngest members of our society, enabled by GHz speeds and broadband connections, don’t have much clout. So the most expedient course is to use technology for evil, to attempt to destroy the wealthy by force for personal gain. This is not honorable.
Playing by the Rules
The recording studios are playing by the rules, for the most part. I recall a recent proposal that had vigilante overtones that would allow record studios to attack P2P servers. But other than that insanely stupid proposal, which I believe has been dismissed by cooler heads, the record studios have sought realistic and legal methods to protect their property. (It’s not illegal to copy protect a CD. It’s merely unethical to pass it off as a Red Book compliant disc or disguise that it is, in fact, protected. It might damage the customer’s computer.)
What has been the result? Legislation is being considered that would offset the theft of music. Advanced technology, in the hands of users, is being used to lift copyrighted music from CDs and share it without compensating the artist. (How much the artists are compensated is up to them, their agents, and their attorneys.) The abuse of technology is justified for personal gain. The government is likely to take away the rights, if there ever were any implied rights, of the users to conduct that theft.
The parallel between this phenomenon and the abuses I described earlier are all too clear. In the Bond movies, agent 007 fights to defeat evil mad men with self-serving visions propelled by the abuse of technology. In reality, when computer users "want what they want and they want it now," any justification for personal gain, utilizing technology, appears to be similarly justifiable.
I’ll have to hand it to Microsoft. They see the handwriting on the wall. Microsoft knows that there is money to be made by partnering with the copyright holders. They are busily about the business of planning software (and hardware) that will protect copyright holders: the Digital Rights Management (DRM) issue. At some point in the future, if things continue as they are going now, you will have about as much control over your Mac as you do over your stereo receiver. Software will still be downloaded and installed, but the hardware will keep you from re-distributing it, and it will be erased each time you are done with it. Music and movies will be digitally watermarked and tied to a user license that you’ll pay dearly for.
Why will this happen? Computer users have violated a corresponding principle of Computer User Responsibility. When a sense of technical responsibility doesn’t exist, it doesn’t require a genius to predict that rights will be abrogated and the regard that the recording studios will have towards all computer users will reach new lows. We shouldn’t be surprised.
In his Foundation series, Isaac Asimov’s character Hari Seldon invents psychohistory, a method of predicting the future using the statistics of human behavior. This is pretty close to the current technique of predicting the stock market utilizing chaos theory. I’m willing to bet my PowerBook that human behavior regarding MP3s is not going to change over night. The statistics of human behavior makes it impossible for all the people to feel the same way all the time. I’ll safely predict, even without using psychohistory, that the recording studios will continue to protect their property and users who value music more than their honor will continue to steal music. Neither side can win.
Changes might come from either a new technology that breaks the status-quo and simultaneously affords the luxury of being more honest or, possibly, a global change in the way musicians sell their music. For example, some artists are giving away their music so that fans will become familiar with them, become enthusiastic, and attend their live concerts. In the meantime, look for the RIAA to make an example of someone in the courts, invoke copy protection, and encourage Microsoft and the government to assist them in the legal protection of their intellectual property.
As for Apple enthusiasts, we have a choice and not much time left to make it. Despite the fact that statistics are against us, I’ll remain optimistic and suggest that we must honor and promote the admonition of the Apple mothership. "Don’t steal music." We must completely abandon the sharing of music we didn’t pay for, adhere to and promote the principle of Fair Use, and establish Macintosh users as a breed apart. Otherwise, we can certainly look forward to draconian hardware measures, enforced by law, that will lock up our Mac, just like the future DRM-enabled PCs.