The real Numb3rs

A license to sit

Techies and copyright activists care a lot about digital-rights management. But the average person? He couldn’t care less. This isn’t because he’s dumb, or because DRM and copyright aren’t incredibly important issues. It’s because they’re often too abstract to seem real.

Right now, the only time people are likely to even notice DRM is with their music and software. And even then, they usually don’t see what’s going on. People tend to behave as if the songs they buy from iTunes or the software they buy from Microsoft are property that they own; they rarely read the fine print to discover that actually all they’ve done is acquire a license to use the “content”. If the company that issued that license decides to change its mind later on, it can reach into your computer, Tivo, or iPod, and remove that stuff you thought you owned. Nasty, eh? Except this doesn’t happen frequently enough or noticeably enough — not yet, anyway — for most people to have had an experience with it. So the big challenge for DRM and copyright activists is simple: Figure out better ways to help the average person understand what’s at stake.

That’s why I was so tickled to hear about “SeatSale”, the art project by cyborg expert Steve Mann. It does a brilliant job of making DRM both concrete and hilariously scary.

SeatSale is a chair that has spikes on it; to sit down, you have to get a “license to sit” that will temporarily retract the spikes. To get a license, you have to swipe your credit card — or “government issued photo ID card” — and agree to the “terms and conditions”, which are themselves a hoot:

1. You agree not to attempt to understand how chairs work.

2. You agree not to try to discover how software works.

3. You agree not to practice the Scientific Method (TM).

The license is “free” — in the sense that the chair doesn’t charge you any cash to sit in it. And indeed, that’s partly what many DRM people argue too — that the DRM restrictions they put on their content, be it software or music, don’t “cost” the user anything; you get to use the software or listen to music so long as you’re using an approved device, right? But what SeatSale shows is that DRM has many hidden costs. When you swipe your card you’re telling the government where you’ve been, where you’ve sat, and how long you were there, for example.

We need more stuff like this.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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