The virtual rare book room is nearly an important enough point to get just right.

A recent post by Matt at, I blog where I've posted in the past, "On game preservation and GameTap" points to an email conversation he has regarding the dangers of subscription-based software delivery systems. In this case, the software consists of video games, and the system is GameTap's. Here's a quote from the exchange.

That's what my friend/co-blogger Ruffin calls the virtual rare book room, and it's a reasonable analogy I think. There is a gatekeeper who stands between you and things that you (think you) own (in the instance of, say, a public university where the people ostensibly own the library's holdings).

Let's refine the word "gatekeeper" and ownership a bit to ensure we've got a more accurate image for what I was trying to convey with the "virtual rare book room" comment.

The Rare Book Room

What a rare book room does is not thwart individual ownership but avoid copyright restrictions. Rather, it recreates the restrictive functions of copyright once works have reached the public domain, when their content should, by that theory, belong to all. In a sense, rare book rooms are the perfect picture of the cliche that possession equals nine-tenths of the law. The "copyright-function" is moved from copyright owner to the rare book room, ironically enough via the public domain.

How does a rare book room do this? Well, it's an issue of scarcity. Imagine you've got an "authentic" (whatever that means today) copy of the first printing of The Faerie Queene in your possession (not sure if that's a great example, but pretend there are very few copies in the world left). The copyright expired, well... let's say it expired some time before RMS was a gleam in a gleam in anyone's eye. If you wanted, you could release high-res scans of your copy for anyone in the world to view, make exact duplicate runs, etc. You have that right. The Authors Guild that pressured Amazon to stop selling used books, of which I'm sure Spenser is still a due-paying a member, could do nothing to stop you.

More importantly, if you lent the book out without restriction, anyone else had rights to do the same. People could come to a library where you'd lent the book, make a copy of the text, and then release that transcript to the world, even sell it. There's nothing copyright can do to protect that content any more. It's in the public domain. Try that with the latest Crichton novel.

How do libraries with a rare copy of the The Faerie Queene perform an end-run around copyright, and still stop you from making such transcripts? Well, they make you sign a contract when you enter the room promising that you won't. No revocation of your public domain rights means no access. They keep their toys to themselves, and access, even in publicly funded libraries, be damned. If they want to pull access, even after you start your studies, the rare book room can. You've given them the right to turn the faucet off. (I'm not necessarily against the system with books, but I have my very idiosyncratic biases in that medium.)

Rare Books and Software

So what can software companies learn from rare book rooms to help them put the proverbial kibash on piracy? One is to drastically change the rules of the game, and keep all permanent, fully-functional copies of their productions' media out of your hands. Trust me, I feel the same urge, and have often thought about making my crappy shareware server-dependent to avoid the apps being easily and permanently cracked. (First, however, I'd need to write an app worth cracking.)

Online games are one very good example of this lesson at work. UOX and RunUO (GPL Ultima Online in .NET; who'd've thunk?) aside, it'd be very difficult for me to reproduce an MMORPG. Blizzard would just as well I copy the World of Warcraft client as many times onto as many machines as I want! Without a server to play on, the client's useless. They own my gaming experience and my gaming labor. At any time, they can raise subscription rates or close up shop. Without the server - their virtual rare book room, of sorts - I'm done, with only a few gigs of neurotically taken screengrabs to show for it. They never give me the software, so even in however many years Sonny's got copyright lasting now, I still won't be able to recreate WoW and play by what were wholly legal means.

Same with GameTap, but GameTap is a more conventional solitary gaming experience rather than one that's online by definition. Sure, there might be some way to [likely illegally] byte-sniff and grab a copy of Save the Whales, but GameTap can still turn the faucet (get it? hardy har) off at any time, whether it's because they'd like to redefine the terms of their subscription [I assume; haven't used GameTap and am speaking generically here] or, as Matt suggests, they go belly-up. Without a server, MMORPGs are somewhat useless; the whole schtick is to play online with others. With KABOOM! and other traditional one-player fare, it's not.

This is also, as I vaguely understand it, an issue in the latest GPL rewrite (correct me anyone if I'm off here). There was a loophole in GPL 2 that allowed people to run web services based on GPL code and never have to give back the updates to the code they had made and were running live on their server. Because the build was never released and customers/users/clients only had access to the servers, not the software, the provider essentially legally hid modified GPL 2 licensed software in the rare book rooms of their servers. Sure, the source was still technically GPL'd, but the only way you could access it would be to become one of their employees. To do this, you had to agree - by signing Bob's favorite contract - not to share company code! The protections of the GPL 2 copyleft, and therefore copyright, were avoided. The web servers were virtual rare book rooms.

Extend to [the current] Napster, or any other subscription based service. Once the right to hold the content is removed or given up, you've got no chance to hang on to the product(s) until copyright runs out.

The Obsolescence of Copyright

I'll sum it up one more way and be done. If you had to sign a contract saying you won't use a piece of newly created software more than 10 years, and that after the end of that period you will destroy all copies, there's no legal route for it to hit the public domain. It's an en/forced scarcity, the sort of scarcity the Authors Guild wanted to create artificially with books.

(Aside: Authors Guild: Don't want used books competing with new ones? Don't sell so danged many up front! You only get to take advantage of scarcity once here, either with lots of units to handle explosive demand up front, or with a limited release to deal with a sustained demand over the long haul. That, if well cared for, books last forever, and that the information they contain can be passed along like any heirloom (or just for fun) is part of their beauty and appeal, dang it.)

The danger here is that arguing against subscription-based scarcity is a losing battle. It's legal. It's intelligent. It's a great end-run around copyright, making copyright obsolete, in a sense. It's an exploitation (more fairly, "use") that allows corporations to maximize profit vis-a-vis pirates.

Moving from the old, static media system to this off-site, subscription-based one marks a long-term loss for the consumer, for public domain, and for archival/academic/historical interests in the future. I dare the industry to take care of all three, but without heightened awareness in consumers who are willing to demand books-in-hand, I can't imagine it happens.

Postscript: The Apple Clause of Moore's Web 2.0

Strangely, of course, Apple already is handing over the bytes with music. Rather than puling a Napster, they're giving you the bytes, to hold and keep. Furthermore, they've apparently determined that, rather than fight piracy with DRM, they'll just tax it.

So why doesn't Apple do this with movies? Same reason it will never happen with mainstream MMORPGs - if a song only has about 3 megs of bytes, even 30, it's a manageable size to store and trade on a peer-to-peer basis as the Internet is currently configured. Pirates can and will distribute music singles quickly and easily. Games and movies can be gigs big. Carry this forward and look at the move to high def content, etc. It's all about convincing consumers to demand more bytes. It's harder to trade larger files, and, for now at least, easier to police their movement on the network. The next version of the Gnutella protocol will have to be quite a bit more distributed in its pulls if the corporate Web 2.0-philes have their way.

As bandwidth grows, so must the products being traded, or they'll be just as easy to trade as music, where the battle over piracy has already been lost. This is, of course, another reason to fight for net neutrality. Controlling bandwidth means controlling content, which means more control for corporations and less control for consumers. That could be A Bad Thing, or, as I suggest above, at least another good challenge for programmers.

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