Don’t bite the Apple that feeds you

Here’s an interesting critique of the Cato Institute’s new white paper on Digital Rights Management. I haven’t read the white paper, so I’ll confine myself to the Boing Boing critique. First, this:

The Cato Institute, an ultra-libertarian, right-wing think tank, has released a white paper damning the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s ban on breaking the anti-copying systems used to cripple digital media, like DVDs and iTunes songs.

I’m not sure what to make of “ultra-libertarian, right-wing”? Ultra-libertarian sounds good enough to me, both in a utopian view of the world and as a descriptive statement for the Cato Institute. So why the addition of “right-wing”? This context reads as if we the reader should replace “right-wing” with “bad” as we follow along. This is too broad, in what appears to be an attempt to smear the Cato Institute’s normal beliefs. Are they not liberal progressive enough? I don’t know, I could be wrong. The post later describes them as “sharp free-market types”, which I like, so “right-wing” just strikes me as a weird to introduce them for this topic.

Moving on:

I’ve heard for years that the Cato Institute was divided on DRM and copyright, so it’s good to seem them taking a stand now. I think they’ve only scratched the surface, though. Of special interest to free-marketeers should be the way that DRM lets Apple hijack the music companies’ copyright monopoly and turn it into a tax on Apple customers who switch from an iPod to a competing product. You can keep your MP3s if you switch from Windows to Mac, but if you switch from iPod to Creative, kiss your iTunes goodbye. Talk about anti-competitive!

That’s too simplistic, I think. It’s too easy to lump DRM and the corporations that use it into the bad category and customers into the good category. I spent a long time not using Apple’s products (iPod and iTunes) because of the DRM issues and the potential choice problems later. Ultimately, my subjective conclusion of Apple’s superiority convinced me.

Apple’s behavior can be seen as anti-competitive, since it’s a closed source process. Boo-hiss, and all that. But I also have a choice. I didn’t have to convert to Apple products. I weighed the factors (cost, options, future conversion efforts) and decided that the deal is sufficient. The free market is functioning.

The flaw in the excerpted passage lies with an incorrect assumption that the free market means the solution comes up roses for the customer every time. The best solution doesn’t have to involve sticking it to The Man. Customers may make irrational decisions that benefit one company more than another. That doesn’t make it wrong. More than anti-competitive dreck surrounding the DRM, the real issue might be whether or not legal digital music would’ve happened without Apple. I have no idea. But the free-market decided that this is good enough for now.

The US Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s ban is absurd, of course, but there’s a difference between a corporate decision to implement licensing requirements DRM and government regulation. With Apple’s scheme, customers have a choice. With the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, customer’s have no choice, aside from whether or not to abide by the law. It’s even more glaring considering how intentionally skewed the DMCA is to content owners. Hitting Apple for its business practices because they correspond with government regulation is too intellectually soft.