a rant on copy protection

<rant on>

I could just slap Steve Jobs. He really had a good thing going with me, until today.

All the people I hang out with are pretty avidly anti-Microsoft, on technical, business, and moral grounds. I work at a University where I and everyone else use Macs. My wife was a Mac pioneer from way back, has a business that may soon be buying educational computers by the truckload, and is a perfect candidate for the “Switch’ ads. I like Pixar movies, and I’m tickled that ol’ Steve’s iTunes was able to show those RIAA guys what morons they’ve been.

Well, it that’s all changed.

I needed one tune, today, to use in little slide show. No copies will be made, no one will collect any money. A dollar isn’t too much to ask for the convenience and, ahem, safety, so I legally bought Carly Simon’s “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of.” But iDVD has crummy dissolves in its slideshow, so I had to use Muvee. But Muveee can only handle .mp3 background music. It turns out that the files that iTunes now hands out are an encyrypted thing called .m4p, and can’t play in anything but Apple’s software. They didn’t tell me that before I wasted my time setting up the account, finding the tune, and paying my $0.99. So I followed the directions for converting the file. It doesn’t work. No explanation. No legal crap. Nothing. I’m trying to check the documentation and the help and the Web. No damn support phone that I can find. Well, some folks suggest that you need to set the preferences to import as MP3. So I try that and buy the damn tune again. Nope. Just silently sucks up my money and my time. I try following the directions to burn an audio CD of the music I now own twice over. No soap. Is it a bug? No, it just doesn’t work. Another CD coaster. More investigation. Aha, Steve’s 4.7 version of iTunes jimmies your computer so that you can’t use it. You can’t just uninstall iTunes and go back to an early version. You have to first “deauthorize” your computer (as if you were passing computer to someone and didn’t want them buying music on your dime). Follow the instructions. No good. Deactivating requires contact with Apple, and they seem to have just turned that off recently. No explanation, just “an error occurred (-3150).” Is it the wrong password? Get a new one, reset, wait for mail with new authorization. Reboot. Try again. Nope. It’s my own damn computer!

Remember I said that I needed this today, and that I was paying the $0.99 for convenience and safety? Wife is panicking. Kids are screaming. I’m screaming. The dog is barking. I’ve got better things to do this Saturday, like taxes. Curse Jobs and search for the damn tune as an .mp3. Find it at Walmart for $0.88! Fuck Jobs. OK. Fine. No, it makes me use Internet Explorer. No it makes me update Windows Media Player. No it makes me get updates. OK. Where was that damn Walmart file? Finally. Set up an account. Get the tune. IT’S A GODDAMN WMA FILE, NOT MP3!

OK, I don’t care anymore, I just want to convert the damn file and I couldn’t care less about licenses. Think different my ass. I go to a site called, I kid you not, “gates-of-hell.com” looking for converters. There’s a thing called hymm, but it doesn’t work with iTunes 4.7. For .wma, there’s a thing called dbPowerAmp, which is just a file converter to go between one legal format and another. Like an AC power adapter. No, it looks like someone sued him and he had to put the program and the codecs (the configuration files that define the formats) in a different place. Get .wma. No, it turns out that there’s old .wma and new improved encrypted .wma…

I was willing to pay a fair price for stuff before. I didn’t want all that file-sharing crapware on my computer anyway. Now it seems that the stuff from Apple is crapware, too. I’ve been lied to, and I’ve lost control. If you want to make it easy for me, great. I’ll pay. But when you don’t deliver what you say and deliberately break your own software and waste my time and take over my computer… enough. Now I will go out of my way to tell people that Steve is no better than Bill. And Sam Walton’s kids, too. Now I will go out of my way to copy and to distribute those copies with a clear conscience. If I have an opportunity to produce a competing file sharing technology that isn’t controlled by these clowns, I’ll take it.

<rant off>

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. I’ve been thinking we need to distinguish between copyright "pirates" and "privateers." Pirates copy stuff at will without regard to legality because they want free music. Privateers deliberately copy to attack unjust copyright laws. Not that anyone issues letter of marque and reprisal these days . . .

  2. Interesting. Is privateering without violence equal to civil disobedience? What about anarchists?

    My report is of my emotions, and I haven’t put it into a philosophical or other context yet. My feeling is that:

    * ordinary copyright law is supposed to give me fair use;

    * usage restrictions under "contract" or licensing law rather than copyright are only valid when the contract is valid (e.g., when both parties are fairly informed, etc.), which (in my feeling) is not the case here;

    * and that what happened to me is simple and deliberate fraud.

    In other words, I’m not sure that there’s an actual law that I’m railing against. I’m just mad. (I do think the Digital Millenneum Copyright Act should be railed against, but I don’t have specific knowledge that it is involved here.) The way I feel about it (again, probably not as a valid legal argument), is that these guys don’t want to play fair, so I don’t want to oblige them. I want to show them I can be a son-of-a-gun, too.

    Honestly, however, I don’t know if I can (or should) realistically separate my feelings on this from an additional train of thought that has been growing in me: that it is wrong to to seek profit from artificially created scarcity. Charge me for producing a CD that I find convenient. Charge me for entrance to a fine collection of carefully edited content. Charge me for a live performance that makes you sweat. Charge me when you create something that is so specific and valuable to me that I need your devoted expertise, or charge me to teach me how to use it. But don’t charge me for something that costs you nothing to share with me, and which might be improved by what I might give back upon it. I desparately want to create technologies that make it as easy as smiling to create something that is useful. The value is in the direct utility or pleasure of using the tool, not in its limited edition scarcity. If it’s easy enough to create such tools, and easy enough to build on them to create better tools, then I’ll be better off sharing them and having a better tool. I know we’re not that there yet with software, but that doesn’t make the culture of it wrong. Tomorrow I may well feel differently, but that’s how I feel today.

    I have asthma and allergies. It’s much easier for me to go around slack jawed and breathing through my mouth. But I still make the modest effort to smile. Often I’m rewarded for it. But (today) I wouldn’t dream of not smiling unless paid for it.

  3. I completely agree. I use iTunes and here is my flow. I buy new albums, once they download I burn a CD. This is a vanilla Audio CD. I have my preferences set to "import tracks as mp3". I then "import" my CD, which rips the tracks to mp3 format. Using Finder, I delete all the tracks I payed for. Although the mp3 files are less quality, I do this for every album I buy, so I can put them on my non-apple mp3 player, or use them in any of our computer’s iMovie app. It’s ridiculous, but I have also run into so many hassels between me and my wife’s mac’s and trying to listen to music and create art. I don’t have the patience to keep mp4 files around. I say buy’em and nukem.

  4. Be sure not to let your iTunes get updated! I have 4.7.1 (30), and it silently removes any .m4p songs from a playlist I try to burn to audio CD. (No warning, just leaves the songs off! Could I be mistaken? Maybe I tried to to make an .mp3 CD rather than an audio? I’m feeling a little too "burned" to keep futzing with it.) And as I mentioned, it won’t let me deauthorize in order to back off to, say, 4.6. (I understand that the iTunes store may not even sell to a 4.6 machine anymore. I don’t know if there is some sort of 4.7.0 middle ground.) Also, I can’t swear to it, but I think it may have updated my iTunes to 4.7.1 as part of a "security update", because I sure don’t remember loading anything that told me my $3000 Apple was about to lose its abilities to burn CD’s of songs that I bought!

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