Thursday, January 12, 2006

Social Inadequacies

Between my earlier ranting about copy-protection on music and my recent deep disappointment at how region-coding issues are keeping me from my Doctor Who discs, I've come to a sort of insight as to why these kinds of restrictive measures are so damned frustrating. Part of it is the obvious annoyance at the idea that, having bought and paid for a song or a video, I'm being hampered in my ability to enjoy it how and where and when I like, possibly to the point where the inconvenience outweighs the enjoyment. (Someone recently compared it to buying food that you're only allowed to cook in certain brands of microwave.) Part of it is being treated like a criminal in a particularly egregious guilty-until-proven-innocent kind of way. But there's another dimension here, too, that I've only just begun to articulate in my own mind, which is that this stuff actually robs the material of a lot of its value, because a large part of the desired experience from music or TV shows, for me, at least, is a social one. And DRM is all about not sharing. So is region-encoding, in a slightly different way.

Examples? Sure. Here's the things that have led me to start thinking about this...

1) So, the new Doctor Who series is not being broadcast in the US, and, in order to see it, I went to lengths I don't normally go to (and which, frankly, are quite a bit more involved and annoying than turning on my TV set). Why? Well, partly because I'm a both a huge Doctor Who fan and a not-terribly-patient person, and the idea that this stuff was out there and I wasn't allowed to watch it was more than I could bear. But that wasn't actually the main reason. The main reason is that I know lots and lots of people in the UK, and they're all watching it. They're watching it, and talking about it, and posting about it all over the net. I want to be a part of that. I want to do the internet equivalent of standing at the water cooler saying, "Ooh, did you see when...?" and "What did you think of...?" and "I wonder what will happen next!" I don't want to be left out of that, to be the person who can't join the conversation, doesn't get the in-jokes, and has to leave the room (or hit the back button) when the subject comes up, in order to avoid spoilers. (And if you hang around the right places on the internet, I guarantee you, no matter how well-meaning people are, they're going to end up spoiling you for something unless you see it right when it comes out.)

2) So, yeah, I have a multi-region DVD player and could buy the Region 2 discs from the UK. But that means the only place I can play them is my living room. Which means no bringing discs with me when I go to visit my sister, squealing "Oh, you have to see this!" and staying up for an exciting all-night marathon, as I've done with shows like Farscape. It means no getting together for video nights and watching the discs with my friends, since several of said friends are deathly allergic to cats and simply can't hang out in my house that long. And it means no loaning out the episodes to recruit new fans, which is a fun and satisfying experience (and generally, by the way, results in people who go out and buy more DVDs).

3) And then there's music... OK, come on, I know every single one of you, at some point or another, has shared music with friends, legally or otherwise. Why do you do it? Is it to save your friend a few bucks for a CD? Or is it more likely to be something like, "Hey, I've been listening to this great band, check it out!" or "This song made me think of something..."? Music is great stuff. Music has the power to entertain us, to move us, to make us think. And when something does that to us, we want to tell our friends. We want to share. But you can't share a song just by talking about it. And, much as I love my friends, there are very few of them whose musical tastes I trust enough to instantly go out and spend money without first getting a sample. But, you know, there are a lot of bands I've bought music from -- sometimes quite a lot of music -- because a friend sent me a track or two, or put something on a mix CD. Music I would never have bought otherwise, because it's not stuff I've heard on the radio, and I don't live close enough to a lot of my friends for them to physically play a CD for me. And that's part of the social value, too: being introduced to new things and finding new things to enjoy with people.

It seems to me that a lot of the argument in favor of strong copyright-protection restrictions boils down to the idea that the primary reason why anybody would want to copy a song or download a TV show is simply to avoid paying for it, so that all the music and film industries are doing is preventing theft, like installing one of those detector thingies at the exit to a department store. I think that argument falls down on several points, but one of them is that they're not just preventing theft, they're actually lowering the value of their product to the consumer. The fact that I can't play my Napster songs on my iPod (meaning that, effectively, I'm not going to listen to them at all) is an obvious example of that, but I think the lowered social value is also a real effect, albeit a more subtle one. I have this idea that we're sort of expected to sit in darkened rooms enjoying our various media files all by our lonesomes, or, at the very most, expected to cluster around one TV or computer for a night of wholesome family entertainment. But this is the 21st century. My family and friends are scattered all over the world, and the internet is the television in our collective living room. (And the stereo, for that matter.) If I have a great song I want my sister to listen to, it's perfectly legal for me to play it for her if she's in the room with me. Too bad she lives in Oregon. I guess I'm supposed to buy a plane ticket? And heaven forbid I should want to get together to watch a TV show with my friends in the UK...

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