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value defined by what you can’t do

I’m batting around this idea, maybe you can help articulate it better. Here’s the basic idea:

The (monetary) value of something is defined by what you can’t do with it; not by what you can do with it.

I’m thinking of this particularly wrt to digital media, and the music biz. The “value” of LP records was defined not by what you could do with it (ie play music), but what you couldn’t do with it: copy it instantly and share it with all your friends. The LP is valuable because it’s scarce: you’ve got one, I don’t … hence it has value. Ditto tapes and CDs.

Thought experiment #1: imagine that in 1888 someone invented a cheap little device that recorded sounds and that also broadcasted sounds to the world; anyone who had such a device could catch those other sound broadcasts and record them … and the device also had infinite storage. If that were the case, how do you think the music “business” would have evolved?

Thought experiment #2: what if our memories were so good that we could hear a song and remember it exactly, and replay it in our minds exactly as we heard it the first time? would musicians go out of their way to try to prevent individuals from hearing their music?

With audiohijack pro I can copy any sound that passes thru my computer, if I so choose. Regardless of any DRM or whatever else you try to stick on your media. Further, I consume 90% of my media on my computer. So if you want me to hear it, I will be able to record it.

I know this is all old news, but I am reminded of my discussions at PodCamp boston with the founder of Select Records (one of the first indie hip hop labels). He was a good guy, an indie trench warrior who worked for many years trying to get little bands popular. But like many record execs sees P2P etc as “illegal downloading.”

But the point is, it doesn’t matter what he thinks. Ditto for Sony and all the rest. (Same for people who complain about Wikipedia… it doesn’t matter if you think Wikipedia is a bad idea, because it’s what people actually use).

It’s just too easy for me or anyone else to copy music. There’s nothing that can be done, it’s over.

Speaking of which, Galacticast did a great little vid.


  1. Dan Parsons Dan Parsons 2007-12-31

    Hugh, there’s just one problem with the “if I can hear it, I can record it” solution: there already exists technology to block this, they just haven’t managed to cram it down our throats yet. It’s similar to HDCP ( in that it prevents content from being played unless the link from file-decoding to end-user-interface is encrypted. In the case of HDCP, when you play HDCP content, it will not work unless you have an HDCP complaint OS, media player program, video card and monitor. If everything is HDCP compliant, there is no way to capture content until it’s coming out of its intended output device (in this case, a monitor). Fortunately even this isn’t really used (yet). MS tried it with Vista and (as things tend to go with Vista) it was a huge failboat.

    The same thing can be done with audio, by requiring you purchase “HDCP for audio”-supported speakers (I don’t know the name of the tech for audio). At the OS level it can be done with drivers that use encryption on the input and the output. Hackers will probably be one step ahead of this but it will be tougher than it is now.

    In each case, your only solution will be to record content with a video camera or a microphone.

    Again, my point is that the technology to do this already exists, they just haven’t been able to “sell” us on it yet. Let’s keep on preventing that from happening :)

  2. Oliver Lavery Oliver Lavery 2008-01-02

    All DRM technologies can be bypassed, any technology that claims otherwise is just bathed in the usual marketing backwash.

    It’s pure logic. At the simplest level if you can hear it you can make a recording using a device completely seperate from Operating Whatnots, Trusted Computing Thingamagigs, etc. No amount of crypto will break a patch cable soldered into the input to a speaker cone.

    Not that it has to. I’ve been asked to break DRM schemes professionally, and it’s always absurdly easy. We’ve seen this time and time again in DRM implementations on devices like the PSP and XBOX. DRM is predicated on getting everything right, but the hacker only needs to fidn one small error in the implementation to bypass the scheme. In practice this is an error that allows an arbitrary byte to be written to an arbitrary memory address.

    The deeper point is that the notion of scarcity is gone in the modern digital world. Music, video, software, there’s really nothing preventing these things from being given to anyone who wants them. Effectively the copying is free, and distribution is vanishingly close to the same.

    However the owner of a work has to be able to dictate the terms by which that work can be used. Most of us like copyright when it works in our favor, but become instant hypocrites when we want to hear the latest derivative bunk from the RIAA or see the latest escapade of someone who’s famous solely for being famous.

    The answer, I think, is to find a new resting point between supply (near infinte) and demand (finite). We don’t want artists to starve, but we object to still paying the breakage fee for LPs that was carried over to the new CD format by our good friends at the labels. It’s a tempest in a tea-cup that amounts to the industry powers that be not wanting to reduce their margins in return for a larger audience.

  3. Dan Parsons Dan Parsons 2008-01-02

    DRM doesn’t have to be perfect. It only needs to be so difficult to break as to prevent the general population from doing what they want. Take DirecTV/DishNetwork satellite television, for example. You can crack it and use it for free, but there’s a lot of upkeep in keeping it working, and there’s the initial hackery required as well.

    So yes, it can always be defeated, but that doesn’t matter. Just being a large inconvenience is sufficient.

  4. Hugh Hugh 2008-01-02

    @oliver: i heard a joi ito talk a couple of years ago, where he had the following conjecture/proposal: “mp3s are just meta data associated with a singer or band.”

    I think somewhere in that statement is the answer to this conundrum, but I have yet to quite figure out what that would mean. in any case the implication is: mp3 are not goods to be sold, but a way to find musicians you like.

    again, I don’t quite know what the financial model would be that comes out of that, but it’s radically different from how the RIAA would like it to work.

    @dan: i agree; DRM just has to be hard enough to thwart people like me, and it’s successful. (though I am on the outer edge because if there is free software that’ll crack DRM, I’ll likely find it…).

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