Save the date: A Day Against DRM, 2010 May 04 recently published an article entitled “The decade of DRM.” Included among the events were four events prior to 2000 that would set the stage for the introduction and proliferation of DRM (digital restrictions management), arguably one of the biggest steps backward for computing freedom ever.

Even as far back as 2000, a lot of devices that we do not ordinarily think of as computers are in fact exactly that. Television sets, VCRs, CD players, DVD players, portable audio players, mobile phones, copiers, printers, scanners, fax machines, and the list goes on; all of these have computers (microprocessor-based logic) built into them somewhere. In 1980, this was unheard of, but now, it’s a fact of life. I still remember my late grandfather’s rants about these new cars with “all this computer [excrement]” that made them much more difficult to fix.

We have yet to change one thing, and it’s probably one thing that should not be changed. Computers are still, by themselves, incredibly dumb. One would think this, by itself, would discourage widespread adoption of DRM. Sadly, this is not the case.

The recording industry (RIAA) has realized DRM is not in their best interests. However movies, e-books, and cable television continue to be saddled with obnoxious restrictions. It’s often said that locks only keep honest people honest, and this is the same with DRM which is just a cyberspace equivalent of a fancy padlock. Those who do not respect copyright or draconian laws like the DMCA will crack the DRM and share anyway. CSS (not the stylesheet language, the DVD encryption method) was cracked very on in the lifespan of the DVD format. The Blu-Ray AACS key has been changed several times, and it just gets cracked again and again. Copies of these movies, as well as scans of books in PDF form, are easily obtainable on peer-to-peer file sharing networks and sites.

Meanwhile, people who have legitimately paid for video and audio recordings get unwelcome surprises when license servers disappear and they try to play recordings they “own” on a new computer. (The term “own” and “ownership” is kind of pointless with DRM, as even if one still has a copy of the recording, it can be rendered useless on an arbitrary basis. It’s like having a CD, DVD, or book that can just vanish or turn to dust without warning.) Don’t believe me? Ask these baseball fans who got bitten by MLB’s change in DRM licensing servers. Or the many people who bought into Microsoft’s PlaysForSure DRM scheme.

Perhaps the worst example, however, is when Amazon reached in to thousands of Kindle e-book readers it sold and erased copies of George Orwell’s book 1984, back in 2009 July. The content of the book itself makes the message even more chilling than it would otherwise have been.

DRM is an anti-social technology and I feel it is out of place in a world where “social media” is the new buzzword. The sooner it dies, the better.

Google, On2, and the future of video codecs

As summarized in FSF’s open letter to Google, there is a strong case for Google releasing the VP8 video codec acquired from their purchase of On2 Technologies.

I agree with most of what is in this open letter from the FSF. However, I have some doubt that VP8 will be a better choice than Theora (itself a derivative of On2’s earlier VP3 codec) in the short term. The more likely path is something along the lines of the following:

  • VP8 is liberated (released under a free software license and with full royalty-free patent licenses, similar to how On2 released VP3 to
  •, other organizations, and/or the free software community at large steps up to clean up and improve the VP8 codebase.
  • The result is some successor to Theora, whatever it may be called, and probably won’t reach “1.0 release status” until 2013 at least.

From the open letter:

This ability to offer a free format on YouTube, however, is only a
tiny fraction of your real leverage. The real party starts when you begin to encourage users’ browsers to support free formats. There are lots of ways to do this. Our favorite would be for YouTube to switch from Flash to free formats and HTML, offering users with obsolete browsers a plugin or a new browser (free software, of course). Apple has had the mettle to ditch Flash on the iPhone and the iPad — albeit for suspect reasons and using abhorrent methods (DRM) — and this has pushed web developers to make Flash-free alternatives of their pages. You could do the same with YouTube, for better reasons, and it would be a death-blow to Flash’s dominance in web video.

I’ll go into detail on Apple’s suspect reasons since these are well-known to computing freedom and free software advocates, but probably less known to most “Joe Average” iPhone users.

Apple runs an App Store for the iPhone and this is, according to Apple, the only “blessed” method of getting applications onto the iPhone. It is possible to “jailbreak” an iPhone such that alternative third-party application repositories can be used. However, Apple has maintained this voids the iPhone’s warranty in addition to violating the DMCA, and at least one update has “bricked” (rendered completely inoperative) jailbroken iPhones.

The sum total is, as far as deciding what actually gets to run on the iPhone, it’s really less like a purchase than a rental. One is effectively renting the iPhone from Apple for a term of the iPhone’s useful life, and Apple retains the true ownership of the iPhone. If this seems just a bit absurd to you, that’s because it is. Most other phones will let you run any Java-based application and download almost any ringtone or wallpaper, giving you a warning that the download is not guaranteed by the wireless carrier or phone manufacturer. But Apple steps in and plays nanny. Anyway, that’s getting off the topic a bit.

The move from Flash-based video to free formats is inevitable. We don’t know what shape the VP8 code is in as far as cross-platform compatibility, and it took a great deal of hacking on VP3 to produce Theora.

The conclusion of the FSF’s open letter to Google is a commendable call to action:

You owe it to the public and to the medium that made you successful to solve this problem, for all of us, forever. Organizations like Xiph, Mozilla, Wikimedia, the FSF, and even On2 itself have recognized the need for free formats and fought hard to make it happen. Now it’s your turn. We’ll know if you do otherwise that your interest is not user freedom on the web, but Google’s dominance.

We all want you to do the right thing. Free VP8, and use it on YouTube!

I’d like to think Google has honorable intentions. However, just because Google decides not to free VP8 and immediately use it on YouTube does not necessarily mean Google intends to sit on VP8 or use it as a bargaining chip. It has already been shown that the argument against Theora on YouTube is FUD. If there’s a difference between Theora and H.264 at a similar bitrate, I’ll be damned if I can see it. The opinion is damn near unanimous that Vorbis blows away MP3 at a similar bitrate and is at least competitive with most everything else.

Google already has access to a free, unencumbered alternative to Flash for YouTube, and did before buying On2. If liberated, VP8 is the future for unencumbered video formats, but it may be too early to just jump in and use it now.

A look at

When the Free Software Foundation scores a hit, it’s usually a home run. This one literally hasn’t landed yet.

Their latest campaign, Windows 7 Sins, is a brutal, gloves-are-off-now attack on Microsoft’s well-known monopolistic and anti-consumer tactics. Some of them are pretty damning.

I’ll go through each of the 7 sins and reply with my take on each one.

1. Poisoning education: Today, most children whose education involves computers are being taught to use one company’s product: Microsoft’s. Microsoft spends large sums on lobbyists and marketing to corrupt educational departments. An education using the power of computers should be a means to freedom and empowerment, not an avenue for one corporation to instill its monopoly.

To be fair about it, Apple did the same thing–not that Apple’s evil tactics, present or past, are strangers to readers of this blog either. In fact every time I used a computer in school (elementary to post-secondary) it ran proprietary software. This certainly should not be the case; the least Microsoft can do is not use the schools not to cement its monopoly.

2. Invading privacy: Microsoft uses software with backward names like Windows Genuine Advantage to inspect the contents of users’ hard drives. The licensing agreement users are required to accept before using Windows warns that Microsoft claims the right to do this without warning.

I have to giggle a bit when I read anything with “Windows” and “Advantage” in the same phrase. Seriously, the odious, obnoxious, and invasive “product activation” requirements are the reason I no longer use Windows on my PC. I’m different than most of the people who treat a computer like just another appliance; I don’t need a license agreement to tell me Microsoft does not have my best interests in mind. Though it is nice to have documentation.

3. Monopoly behavior: Nearly every computer purchased has Windows pre-installed — but not by choice. Microsoft dictates requirements to hardware vendors, who will not offer PCs without Windows installed on them, despite many people asking for them. Even computers available with other operating systems like GNU/Linux pre-installed often had Windows on them first.

It is possible to get even laptops without an OS already on them (referring here to PC hardware, of course). Local clone shops will happily give you a system with a clean hard drive and will even leave the license cost for Windows off of your final invoice. I, of course, prefer to build my own; my most recent computers were “rescued” so they do have major brand names on them. One was apparently dumped because the Windows XP install on it was busted. It’s now the firewall for our home network, running OpenBSD quite happily.

4. Lock-in: Microsoft regularly attempts to force updates on its users, by removing support for older versions of Windows and Office, and by inflating hardware requirements. For many people, this means having to throw away working computers just because they don’t meet the unnecessary requirements for the new Windows versions.

When I saw the requirement of 1G–yes, an entire gigabyte–of RAM for Windows Vista, I was floored. I hear you really needed to have 2G of RAM to get a usable system. That’s insane. I’m still getting by on a system running Debian 5.0 (lenny) with 256M of RAM; it remains relatively responsive as long as I am careful, though I probably do need to find something to replace or augment it in the not-so-distant future.

But to require 1G of RAM when the previous generation of PCs top out at that? That’s inexcusable and cruel to the people who can’t afford to buy a new computer because Microsoft says it’s time to.

5. Abusing standards: Microsoft has attempted to block free standardization of document formats, because standards like OpenDocument Format would threaten the control they have now over users via proprietary Word formats. They have engaged in underhanded behavior, including bribing officials, in an attempt to stop such efforts.

Indeed, this is probably the most unfair, unkind, unscrupulous, thoughtless, sneaky, and nasty thing Microsoft is guilty of. When OASIS released the OpenDocument standards, Microsoft shot back with the confusingly similar Office Open XML, which is despite its name not a true open standard.

Even though Microsoft is a part of the W3C, its Internet Explorer HTML viewer is pathetic enough that I refuse to call it a Web browser. I actually had to program MSIE as a mobile phone user agent because it completely bombs on this WordPress theme as used here. (Which is probably another reason I need to make a custom theme for this site, and now that I have the experience, I will probably start on that in about a week or two.)

Microsoft ignored certain parts of the TCP/IP standards or recommendations when first making a TCP/IP stack part of the Windows OS (Windows’ TCP/IP stack was adapted from BSD, yet none of the code changes or improvements were ever contributed back to that project that I am aware of). UDP port scans on early versions of Windows were much easier than a comparable Unix system. This kind of plays into the bit about security below.

6. Enforcing Digital Restrictions Management (DRM): With Windows Media Player, Microsoft works in collusion with the big media companies to build restrictions on copying and playing media into their operating system. For example, at the request of NBC, Microsoft was able to prevent Windows users from recording television shows that they have the legal right to record.

I’ve ranted about DRM enough times here that I’m not sure what new I can add. This is pretty much par for the course for Microsoft, and something they should have no problem doing. Microsoft does partner with NBC, so it’s not surprising they would cave in easily to such a demand.

7. Threatening user security: Windows has a long history of security vulnerabilities, enabling the spread of viruses and allowing remote users to take over people’s computers for use in spam-sending botnets. Because the software is secret, all users are dependent on Microsoft to fix these problems — but Microsoft has its own security interests at heart, not those of its users.

Again, to be fair about it, Microsoft is far from the only offender here; they are, however, the most egregious. I take any Microsoft initiative to tighten security with a grain of salt, if not a shaker full of it, as the exploits keep coming with no real end in sight. (Hypertension? What hypertension?)