The need to control the future

(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

“He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” George Orwell, 1984

In the context of this book, “the past” consists of both the corpus of already existing creative works, locked by extending copyright beyond decency, and the huge quantity of digital documents already saved in proprietary or unknown file formats. Those who control the end users also control other producers. And those who control production today do it mostly to kill future, potential competitors.

Martin Mystere, the “detective of the impossible”, is a very popular comic character in Italy, where the series is produced, and in many other countries. He is both an archaeologist and a computer scientist, always involved in Indiana Jones kinds of adventures. He is also a manic reader, one of those people who would rather starve than stop buying books, magazines and comics. In a special number issued to celebrate one hundred years of comics, Martin is ported to a parallel dimension, where writing, reading or generally dealing with comics sends you to prison. Only movies usable with expensive, closed access systems, which are only producible by corporations with huge economic resources, are available to consumers.

Eventually, Martin Mystere realizes that the reason of the ban is just that comics (but the same would be true for books or Internet pages) are much cheaper to produce than movies, to the point that almost anybody could communicate through them, not just the government or some corporation. As one Mystere’s enemies puts it, comics must remain illegal because “they tell stories which would never make it to television; it would have been too expensive”.

What they really want to stop

The analogies between the Martin Mystere story and what is already happening in our lives in this digital era are evident. Very likely, the first things that makes the industry go nuts in all the cases of “intellectual property violation” is not loss of royalties from illegal copying or redistribution of their current works, regardless of what they say.

Today, to see a DVD movie on a computer it’s not enough to pay whatever money the producer asks (and let’s repeat once more that they have every right to charge for their product whatever they feel is right, and illegal copying is a crime), but you also must configure your very own computer as they want. This is basically like saying that you can be arrested for piracy if you regularly buy the last Disney movie, and then see it on a black and white monitor… Why? Because in this way they can control what all users can do, that is which other movies they will be able to see or make and market all by themselves, including the next Blair Witch Project or denounce of some abuses of your government. Remember all the problems with documentaries? The same happens with software programs.

The real reason why the entertainment and software industries push for DRM, Trusted Computing, closed file formats and so on it’s not just locking all further profits from past works, just as much to make sure that there aren’t any future works done by others.

In fact, DVD illegal copies can be made anyway, but until you can only buy the mutilated DVD players and recorders approved by movie distributors, you are still forced to pay when they start distributing DVD with limited duration or decoding keys (as in “buy it,but if you want to see it again one year from now, you’ve got to pay for it again”).

Independent creation and distribution of new material with new schemes: this is the real problem and danger for multinationals. Their goal is not just to keep making money on the current artists, is to guarantee that all the future others, including our children, can only pass through them. If the whole chain of creating and distributing movies is locked up with technologies only accessible to big corporations with even bigger legal divisions, how would your movie, the movie of your civil rights campaign, be seen? Technology is legislation these days.