Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006

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Copy protection robs the future

Copyright 2001 by Dan Bricklin

The other day I wanted to listen to a song I remember from my youth. I took the old vinyl record out of its sleeve and put it on my aging turntable. I gently dropped the needle onto the appropriate track, and out came the music, but it was way too fast. It seems my turntable broke, and now plays everything at exactly 45 rpm instead of 33. Bummer! It was a slow song and I wanted it slow. Luckily, I found I had another copy of the same song that the record company that owned the rights to the song had released (the CD was "Greatest Folksingers of the 'Sixties"). Much nicer. Unfortunately, they had only included that one song -- I couldn't play any of the others I wanted from the original album. I'll have to try to fix my turntable.

This got me to thinking about preserving old works of composers, musicians, authors, and other creative individuals. How does that preserving come about and will today's works produced on digital media last into the future?

How are works preserved through the generations? As human beings, we benefit greatly from the works of others. Artists, thinkers, scholars, and performers create works that we all enjoy, learn from, and are inspired by. Many works are timeless. Either standing alone or in the context of their time or other times, they are valuable periodically years after they are created. We often hear of authors, artists, or composers who only become popular or have their greatest impact after their death, sometimes many years later.

How are these works passed down through the generations? It usually isn't the direct result of the efforts of the original creator. Other people make it their job to preserve the works and pass them on. These jobs are either formal, like librarians and curators, or informal, like enthusiasts and hobbyists. There are additional other people who find interesting works and bring them to the attention of new generations. These may be scholars doing research, or a collector who develops a strong passion.

How are the actual works preserved? Sometimes just storing the work is sufficient, but in most cases a change in environment is needed. To preserve unique items, we often need to go to extremes, even to preserve them for just a few hundred years. According to the Archivist of the United States, the US onstitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence are stored in an encasement "...made of pure titanium, high-strength glass, and specially treated aluminum to encapsulate these aging, fragile documents in argon, an inert gas, for their long-term preservation..."

For some works, it's enough to just preserve the words themselves. For these and others, copies are what we preserve, such as recordings of performances, or microfilm copies of newspapers. We produce the copies in more stable media, or ones that are easier from which to reproduce (a form of "changing the environment".) The practice of constantly producing new copies before the old copies wear out has worked well. To increase the likelihood of long-term survival for a work, such as a religious text, producing many copies and keeping them in diverse places has also worked very well. With ever-changing technology, in order to preserve many works we will need to constantly move them ahead, copying them to each new media form before the previous one becomes obsolete. Also, as we create new media, we need to preserve the knowledge of the methods of converting from one media to another, so we can still access the old works that have not yet been moved ahead. This is crucial. Without that, even preserved works could be unreadable.

There are things happening that make me worry that the future may not be bright for preserving many of the works we create today. For example: Companies are preparing to produce music CDs that cannot be copied into many other formats (something allowed by law as "fair use"). Most new eBooks are copy protected. Some members of Congress want laws requiring digital devices to enforce copy protection schemes for copyrightable material. An existing law makes it a crime to tell people how to make copies of protected works.

I believe that copy protection will break the chain necessary to preserve creative works. It will make them readable for a limited period of time and not be able to be moved ahead as media deteriorates or technologies change. Only those works that are thought to be profitable at any given time will be preserved by their "owners" (if they are still in business). We know from history that what's popular at any given time is no certain indication of what will be valuable in the future. Without not-copy protected "originals", archivists, collectors, and preservers will be unable to maintain them the way they would if they weren't protected. (Many of these preservers ignore fashion as they do their job, because they see their role as preservers, not filters.) We won't even be able to read media in obsolete formats, because the specifications of those formats will not be available. To create a "Rosetta Stone" of today's new formats will be asking to go to jail and having your work banned.

This is different than encryption or patent protection. With encryption, as long as the keys for reading survive, and a description of the method of decryption, you can recreate the unprotected original. It's even better -- you can prove authenticity. Patent protection just keeps you from creating and using your own unlicensed reader for a limited period of time. After that, the legal duty of the patent is to teach you how it works so you can make your own. For long-term preservation of works (as opposed to short-term quick advancement in some fields) patented techniques are good because they discourage secrets and eventually put things in the public domain.

One of the most popular parts of [my web site] is a copy of the original IBM PC version of VisiCalc. Actually, that's not exactly true. It's not the same exact program you could buy. The original VisiCalc was only shipped on 5 1/4" copy protected diskettes. Part of the program checked that the diskette it was loaded from had the special copy protection modifications. Despite the fact that I have an old computer with a 5 1/4" diskette drive, I still couldn't make a working, distributable copy. I received permission from the current copyright holder to distribute the copies, but VisiCalc hadn't been produced for years and they lost track of any original masters they had owned. Luckily for me, an employee of Software Arts, my company that created the original program, kept a "test" copy we had used internally that was created without the copy protection code. He was not one of the original authors, but is an informal "collector" of things. He gave me a copy he had moved ahead to Windows. Thanks to Lotus' permission, which I won't need when the copyright expires, I was able to post a copy on the Web, and now many tens of thousands of people have copies. Thanks to those not-copy protected copies, and the documentation available about the original IBM PC, it is much more likely now that future generations will be able to learn about early PC programs by running VisiCalc. If only the original diskettes were passed down, then only people with special obsolete equipment could run them, and after the disks deteriorated they would not be useable.

Copy protection, like poor environment and chemical instability before it for books and works of art, looks to be a major impediment to preserving our cultural heritage. Works that are copy protected are less likely to survive into the future. The formal and informal world of archivists and preservers will be unable to do their job of moving what they keep from one media to another newer one, nor will they be able to ensure survival and appreciation through wide dissemination, even when it is legal to do so.

If you are an artist or author who cares more than about the near-term value of your work, you should be worried and be careful about releasing your work only in copy protected form. Like the days when "art" was only accessible to the rich, two classes will probably develop: Copy protected and not copy protected, the "high art" and "folk art" of tomorrow.

Artists and authors need to create their works and still make a living. Copy protection is arising as a "simple fix" to preserve business models based upon the physical properties of old media and distribution. Our new media and distribution techniques need new business models (perhaps with different intermediate players) that don't shortchange the future. Trying to keep those old business models in place is as inappropriate as continuing to produce only 33 rpm vinyl records.