Double Standards?

Microsoft have been getting lots of press recently because of their new Zune music player. One of its major features is its wireless interface that lets you share music; even most of the advertising talks about the social implications1. But let’s have a quick look at that functionality in more detail.

If I decide that I want to expend an hour of battery life in order to see other Zunes in the area, what can I do? Most famously you can transfer songs. As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, there are limits. When I receive a song, I can play it three times or hang onto it for three days2 but after that all I get is an electronic post-it note reminding me about it. Clearly a lot of thought and a lot of engineering effort has gone into these limitations.

What about movies? Sorry, bad news here. You can’t transmit them at all.

Zune can also store pictures. What limits have Microsoft provided to protect photographers?

The answer, it turns out, is none. You can transfer as many pictures as you like to as many people as you like. Once transferred, they are visible indefinitely and can even be copied to further Zunes.

Er, hello? Double standards?

I imagine that the main argument is that most people don’t have a bunch of professional photographs on their computers but do have commercial music. How far can we get with that line of thinking? Well, in fact, there is a certain logic in that. Most people don’t write their own music, even with relatively simple to use applications like Garageband, but they do have large collections of holiday snaps.

However the argument starts to fall down when you start to think about movies. Do people have only commercial movies and nothing personal? I don’t think so. While it is possible to rip a DVD and put it on your iPod it’s legally dubious, non-trivial (because of the CSS scrambling scheme) and time consuming (transcoding to MP4 takes a long time even on quick machines). Even if you use P2P software to download an illegal copy it’s likely to be is DivX format which cannot be used directly by the Zune, so that time-consuming transcoding step returns. My guess is that people are, in fact, much more likely to have home movies. Of course, if you made the movie you’ll also own the copyright for and are quite likely to want to send to friends and family. Certainly my wedding video has done the rounds and my attempts on a Segway has been distributed fairly widely.

That being the case, then why are the limitations on distributing movies even more severe than that for music? There’s a definite mismatch between desired usage patterns and the programmed restrictions.

So where have the restrictions come from and why do they vary so widely? Maybe a clue can be found in the fact that Microsoft are paying the RIAA $1 for each Zune sold.

Why would Microsoft do that? Clearly, in the US, the RIAA, for music, and the MPAA, for movies, hold a lot of sway. But for photographers? I’m not aware of a single organisation that has the same level of influence.

I’m sure Reuters and PA protect the copyright of their own images, but who protects everyone else? Perhaps this is because while movies and music require large teams, photography is more often a solo activity but certainly it has no relation to the value of the medium.

Ultimately I think this is another strike against the draconian DRM measures that are currently being applied to movies and music. I have nothing against digital rights management in the abstract, but implementations that restrict or remove rights that you already have by law just make the music labels and movie distributors look like money-grabbing opportunists.

  1. It amuses me that with all the money that Microsoft has, the best their marketing people can come up with to describe this is “squirting.” At best that sounds comic, at worst somewhat rude. What were they thinking? []
  2. Even this, it turns out, is a simplification. At least one of the major record labels has forbidden wireless sharing of their music entirely. Unfortunately they don’t tell you about this until you actually try to transfer the file yourself. Is this legal? Is it not a case of adding restrictions after the sale? []