Friday, May 25, 2007


When I got to RPI in 1968, they’d just opened a spiffy new Student Union building. Its top floor consisted of a lounge/balcony area that overlooked the Student Union Dining Hall, plus outer offices and meeting rooms. Since those were all on the outer perimeter of the building, practically every meeting room and office had windows. Pretty slick design, I think.

At the four corners of the top floor were office areas, the main Union office, plus three “special interest” office clusters. One of them was for student publications. Most of the space got taken by The Polytechnic, the school newspaper, because it was, by far, the largest organization. There was also a darkroom (in one of the few spaces without windows), and the Poly guys used that a lot, but all the publications had access to it. There were three other main publications on campus, The Bachelor (humor magazine), The Gorgon (literary magazine), and the Rensselaer Engineer, which was my equivalent of pledging a fraternity (albeit a very small one).

There were three editorial jobs on The Engineer: Features Editor, Managing Editor, and Editor-in-Chief, usually occupied by a sophomore, junior, and senior, respectively. Taking the Features Editor position traditionally set you up for a three year gig, and that’s what happened to me. Actually, the transition usually took place in the spring semester, so there was overlap with the outgoing editor-in-chief for the one semester, at least theoretically.

So I became Features Editor my freshman year. I got a key to the office, and kept it for three years. I spent a lot of time in that office, and why not? It was on campus, in a cool new building, and better than the offices that most faculty members got.

Having the key to that office was a source of comfort, or so I learned when I gave it up. Suddenly, bereft, I had to find other places to store my stuff, eat lunch (or sometimes breakfast; I kept cereal in on of the desk drawers), hide out when I felt like hiding. The office hadn’t been exactly property, but it wasn’t not property, either. I mean, how else to explain the feeling of loss when it was no longer “mine.”

Keys are interesting for a number of reasons, but here I’m interested in the fact that they define and protect property without specific legal recourse. They prevent theft or unauthorized use even in the absence of police protection. Access is both freedom and power. Property is both freedom and power.

When they were planning the new RPI Library, during the time I was in graduate school, there was a suggestion to put one of those electronic theft detectors at the entrance. The new Head Librarian and I were dead set against it. He held the very admirable position that students were part of the University Community, and that one does not begin with the assumption that members of your community are thieves. Trust them and they will reward that trust was his belief.

My own position was that putting a technical barrier in at an engineering school was just asking for it. There would be students who would never consider stealing books who would begin to do so just to show they could do it. I’d known too many students who’d gimmicked telephones, cracked the main RPI keying system, and otherwise gotten into trouble, just because it had been a challenge. Well, okay, the challenge and the getting free phone calls and getting parts for their electrical engineering projects from the labs at 3 A.M.

The two of us won the argument, at least temporarily. I think I saw some of the electronic detectors at a reunion or so back, but at least someone could maybe check to see if it did any good, because we had some years as a baseline.

So we come to copy protection (CP) and Digital Rights Management, both pernicious and foolish ideas, in my estimation, but apparently very seductive to those who want control of “intellectual property.” But CP and DRM differ from the sort of protection that keys provide in fundamental ways, ways that underscore the difference between intellectual property and chattel property or real estate.

The message that is sent by copy protection is that you don’t own what you bought, someone else owns it. So where does that leave you? Wherever it leaves you, it leaves you with less than you otherwise would have. Copy protection is never transparent; it’s a pain to deal with. It makes whatever is being “protected” less valuable.

Now an automobile that can’t be stolen would be more valuable to the owner, not less. So CP and DRM isn’t protection for the owner; it’s just restriction.

How much is that reduction in value actually worth? Hard to say, really, though I note that there is currently a move to sell non-DRM music for about 30% more than DRMed music. So somebody thinks the vigorish is about 30%.

But the other message that is sent by CP and DRM schemes is that anything goes if you can break the protection. And some people have made it their mission to do just that. The result has been an ongoing arms race, with the latest moves being to make such attempts illegal. In fact, the idea is to make even the transmission of information about how to break DRM illegal.

Me, I’m just fascinated at all the different ways there are to invent the Thought Police.

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