Doctorow on Platform Monopolies

by on July 28, 2006 · 16 comments

Corey Doctorow has a good article on the DMCA on Information Week:

The DMCA makes the kind of reverse-engineering that’s commonplace in most industries illegal in copyright works. For example, in the software industry, it’s legal to reverse-engineering a file-format in order to make a competing product. The reason: The government and the courts created copyright to provide an incentive to creativity, not to create opportunities to exclude competitors from the marketplace.

Reverse engineering is a common practice in most industries. You can reverse-engineer a blender and make your own blades, you can reverse-engineer a car and make your own muffler, and you can reverse-engineer a document and make a compatible reader. Apple loves to reverse-engineer–from Keynote to TextEdit to Mail.app, Apple loves reverse-engineering its competitors’ products and making its own competing products.

But the iTunes/iPod product line is off-limits to this kind of reverse-engineering. No one but Apple can authorize an iTunes/iPod competitor, and Apple’s not exactly enthusiastic about such authorization –the one major effort to date was the stillborn Motorola ROKR phone, which was so crippled by ridiculous Apple-driven restrictions that it barely made a ripple as it sank to the bottom of the cesspool of failed electronics.

Doctorow makes a good point about Apple’s own reverse engineering. I wonder if Apple believes it was guilty of adopting “the tactics and ethics of a hacker” when it reverse engineered Power Point in order to allow Keynote users to interoperate with Power Point users. Or for that matter, when they bundled Samba, a networking suite that was built by reverse-engineering Microsoft’s file and print sharing protocols, into Mac OS X. Maybe those products ought to be illegal as well.

  • http://www.alarm-alarm.com Peter

    The problem, though, is that reverse engineering data becomes a government-granted right, as in France. Reverse engineering has its uses, but too many proponents of interoperability want to mandate that Apple (or whoever) open up its tech.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Well, I’m certainly not in favor of that. And in fact, I think repealing the DMCA would be a good way to undermine political support for a French-style government-mandated interoperability right.

  • http://www.alarm-alarm.com Peter

    The problem, though, is that reverse engineering data becomes a government-granted right, as in France. Reverse engineering has its uses, but too many proponents of interoperability want to mandate that Apple (or whoever) open up its tech.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Well, I’m certainly not in favor of that. And in fact, I think repealing the DMCA would be a good way to undermine political support for a French-style government-mandated interoperability right.

  • Mike

    Ah, I’m going to spend some time talking about something else besides software patents, which is usually my area of interest when I’m browsing techliberation.com.

    There is an important concept in life and by extension, an important concept in business. It’s called common sense. A company should have the right to protect itself from reverse engineering. It’s well understood that reverse engineering is one of those things that can be used as a tool for good … and certainly as a tool for evil.

    I’m not going to lecture anyone on common sense. I am often short on common sense myself. That said, inter-operability is essential for customers who are averse to using a single supplier. Many customers are averse to using a single supplier, but more importantly, using a single supplier is more often than not, an impossibility. Thus, closed technology is not common sense to most customers. The market always decides such matters.

    Apple shouldn’t have to open their technology. Of course, long ago, Apple decided it wouldn’t open its technology and this allowed Windows to rise up and take the entire market. As a computer company, Apple is an irrelevant brand. As an operating system vendor, Apple is an irrelevant brand. Apple is a culturally significant brand, but not a significant brand in the market. There is a difference. Sure Apple makes the iPod, but the iPod is its own brand, separate from Apple. I doubt very much that many consumers care that Apple makes the iPod.

    If a company wishes to keeps its technology closed, fine. The market will speak on the matter. Closed technology simply gives your competitors an important edge. Closed technology does nothing to build the ecosystem, or aftermarket, that is essential to the long term success of most products.

  • Mike

    Ah, I’m going to spend some time talking about something else besides software patents, which is usually my area of interest when I’m browsing techliberation.com.

    There is an important concept in life and by extension, an important concept in business. It’s called common sense. A company should have the right to protect itself from reverse engineering. It’s well understood that reverse engineering is one of those things that can be used as a tool for good … and certainly as a tool for evil.

    I’m not going to lecture anyone on common sense. I am often short on common sense myself. That said, inter-operability is essential for customers who are averse to using a single supplier. Many customers are averse to using a single supplier, but more importantly, using a single supplier is more often than not, an impossibility. Thus, closed technology is not common sense to most customers. The market always decides such matters.

    Apple shouldn’t have to open their technology. Of course, long ago, Apple decided it wouldn’t open its technology and this allowed Windows to rise up and take the entire market. As a computer company, Apple is an irrelevant brand. As an operating system vendor, Apple is an irrelevant brand. Apple is a culturally significant brand, but not a significant brand in the market. There is a difference. Sure Apple makes the iPod, but the iPod is its own brand, separate from Apple. I doubt very much that many consumers care that Apple makes the iPod.

    If a company wishes to keeps its technology closed, fine. The market will speak on the matter. Closed technology simply gives your competitors an important edge. Closed technology does nothing to build the ecosystem, or aftermarket, that is essential to the long term success of most products.

  • Doug Lay

    Mike said:

    >>A company should have the right to protect itself from reverse engineering.

    The burning question is how?

    Through contract?
    Okay, but are all click-through contracts to be enforceable? Also, the DMCA goes way too far as a mechanism for contract enforcement.

    Through technical impediments?
    Sure, but the DMCA goes way too far in protecting said impediments.

    Through patents?
    Fine, but recognize the patent system needs serious reform, and the scope of what can be patented probably needs to be reduced.

  • Doug Lay

    Mike said:

    >>A company should have the right to protect itself from reverse engineering.

    The burning question is how?

    Through contract?
    Okay, but are all click-through contracts to be enforceable? Also, the DMCA goes way too far as a mechanism for contract enforcement.

    Through technical impediments?
    Sure, but the DMCA goes way too far in protecting said impediments.

    Through patents?
    Fine, but recognize the patent system needs serious reform, and the scope of what can be patented probably needs to be reduced.

  • Mike

    How should a company protect itself from reverse engineering? I suppose a license agreement is fine. I can’t speak about the legality of click through licenses, so I won’t. As far as I know, in the U.S., click through licenses are binding, but I’m not sure of the case law specifics.

    I am opposed to software patents. This is such a complex issue that I won’t comment further.

    To reiterate my previous arguments. Let the market decide if it prefers closed technology. If a company does not wish to provide interoperable software products, so be it. In many cases, the market has already indicated its feelings on this matter. Windows is a great example. Not completely open, but they managed to roll over a superior technology [Mac OS] by providing open systems. Steve Jobs has said that keeping Mac OS closed is one of his biggest regrets.

    Refusing to provide interoperable systems gives a significant edge to any competitor who chooses to provide open systems. Refusing to interoperate flies in the face of common sense, and therefore it’s bad business.

    Let the market decide.

  • Mike

    How should a company protect itself from reverse engineering? I suppose a license agreement is fine. I can’t speak about the legality of click through licenses, so I won’t. As far as I know, in the U.S., click through licenses are binding, but I’m not sure of the case law specifics.

    I am opposed to software patents. This is such a complex issue that I won’t comment further.

    To reiterate my previous arguments. Let the market decide if it prefers closed technology. If a company does not wish to provide interoperable software products, so be it. In many cases, the market has already indicated its feelings on this matter. Windows is a great example. Not completely open, but they managed to roll over a superior technology [Mac OS] by providing open systems. Steve Jobs has said that keeping Mac OS closed is one of his biggest regrets.

    Refusing to provide interoperable systems gives a significant edge to any competitor who chooses to provide open systems. Refusing to interoperate flies in the face of common sense, and therefore it’s bad business.

    Let the market decide.

  • Doug Lay

    Mike:

    so you oppose software patents but have nought to say about the DMCA. It this an oversight, or intentional?

  • Doug Lay

    Mike:

    so you oppose software patents but have nought to say about the DMCA. It this an oversight, or intentional?

  • Mike

    I don’t have anything to say about the DMCA. Interoperability makes good business sense for a variety of reasons. 1.] Customers are often averse to using a single supplier, 2.] Customers often cannot use a single supplier, and 3.] Closed technology makes it difficult to build an aftermarket for a product. An aftermarket and/or ecosystem is an essential element of long-term success. I’m just repeating earlier points.

    A company should be allowed to create closed systems/platforms if they want. The market will decide, as it always does, whether it values closed systems or not. [The market already has a lot to say about this.] I fail to see how the DMCA affects this, as there are numerous ways to create a closed platform with or without the DMCA. The DMCA might put more teeth into the issue, but again, the market should decide if it values closed technology. In many cases the market has already decided.

    I have worked extensively in computer graphics. There’s a popular “open” platform for storing scene graph data. Well, guess what? It might be an “open” standard but it’s controlled by the organization that developed the standard. We developed tools that wrote into the semi-proprietary standard and were then “asked” not to redistribute our tools. I can’t comment further on this issue, though I would like to.

    At any rate, a group of developers created another standard, a truly open format. DMCA or not, do you think the semi-proprietary standard has fared well in the face of competition from the truly open standard? At one point the semi-proprietary standard was the absolute market leader. It’s market share was basically 100%, for all intents and purposes. It was de facto. That is no longer the case. I believe that market share between the semi-proprietary standard and the “open standard” are now equal, with increasing adoption of the “open standard”. We’re making tools again and this time we won’t bother worrying about whether or not our tools write into the semi-proprietary standard, lest they again “ask” us not to release this type of extension. The “open standard” on the other hand, has our full support. Guess who’s market is growing?

    I doubt the existence of the DMCA had any effect on the development of the secondary standard. I think the semi-proprietary standard is more or less dead in the water because the open standard offers incredibly superior economics and now has a growing market of vendors who are offering products in support. Lots of serious organizations have adopted the open standard, which means less mindshare and less commercial use of the semi-proprietary standard.

    The $64,000 question: if a closed standard eventually drives business elsewhere, who is helped by closed standards? Answer: “elsewhere” is helped.

  • Mike

    I don’t have anything to say about the DMCA. Interoperability makes good business sense for a variety of reasons. 1.] Customers are often averse to using a single supplier, 2.] Customers often cannot use a single supplier, and 3.] Closed technology makes it difficult to build an aftermarket for a product. An aftermarket and/or ecosystem is an essential element of long-term success. I’m just repeating earlier points.

    A company should be allowed to create closed systems/platforms if they want. The market will decide, as it always does, whether it values closed systems or not. [The market already has a lot to say about this.] I fail to see how the DMCA affects this, as there are numerous ways to create a closed platform with or without the DMCA. The DMCA might put more teeth into the issue, but again, the market should decide if it values closed technology. In many cases the market has already decided.

    I have worked extensively in computer graphics. There’s a popular “open” platform for storing scene graph data. Well, guess what? It might be an “open” standard but it’s controlled by the organization that developed the standard. We developed tools that wrote into the semi-proprietary standard and were then “asked” not to redistribute our tools. I can’t comment further on this issue, though I would like to.

    At any rate, a group of developers created another standard, a truly open format. DMCA or not, do you think the semi-proprietary standard has fared well in the face of competition from the truly open standard? At one point the semi-proprietary standard was the absolute market leader. It’s market share was basically 100%, for all intents and purposes. It was de facto. That is no longer the case. I believe that market share between the semi-proprietary standard and the “open standard” are now equal, with increasing adoption of the “open standard”. We’re making tools again and this time we won’t bother worrying about whether or not our tools write into the semi-proprietary standard, lest they again “ask” us not to release this type of extension. The “open standard” on the other hand, has our full support. Guess who’s market is growing?

    I doubt the existence of the DMCA had any effect on the development of the secondary standard. I think the semi-proprietary standard is more or less dead in the water because the open standard offers incredibly superior economics and now has a growing market of vendors who are offering products in support. Lots of serious organizations have adopted the open standard, which means less mindshare and less commercial use of the semi-proprietary standard.

    The $64,000 question: if a closed standard eventually drives business elsewhere, who is helped by closed standards? Answer: “elsewhere” is helped.

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