Opening up

If you haven’t checked it out yet, Paul Graham’s latest essay is quite good. He talks about what businesses can learn from the open source community and movement and identifies three key lessons that might enhance corporate productivity: professionalism is overrated, working in a traditional office sucks, and good ideas generally percolate up from the bottom rather than being handed down from above. On that last note, Graham makes a particularly astute observation (though not, admittedly, an original one):

Ironically, though open source and blogs are done for free, those worlds resemble market economies, while most companies, for all their talk about the value of free markets, are run internally like communist states. → I should point out that I’m not one of these open source zealots that thinks anything and everything involving the term is automatically good and that anything whose source is closed is bad, but, as Graham notes, there are certain unavoidable parallels to be drawn between open source and, to use Popper’s term, the open society

Graham goes on to note that, just as in a Communist state, traditional corporate employers have taken on a very paternalistic role these days:

Nothing shows more clearly that employment is not an ordinary economic relationship than companies being sued for firing people. In any purely economic relationship you’re free to do what you want. If you want to stop buying steel pipe from one supplier and start buying it from another, you don’t have to explain why. No one can accuse you of unjustly switching pipe suppliers. Justice implies some kind of paternal obligation that isn’t there in transactions between equals.

Most of the legal restrictions on employers are intended to protect employees. But you can’t have action without an equal and opposite reaction. You can’t expect employers to have some kind of paternal responsibility toward employees without putting employees in the position of children. And that seems a bad road to go down.

And, as he goes on to note, “[i]t’s demoralizing to be on the receiving end of a paternalistic relationship, no matter how cozy the terms. Just ask any teenager.” Note that what Graham has to say about “justice” not being a consideration in “transactions between equals” is equally applicable in other realms; the “fair trade” nonsense that continually arises in the context of the third world and much of the affirmative-action talk spouted by self-appointed saviors of the black race are just two examples.

Anyway, speaking of open source, Cory Doctorow had an excellent post yesterday explaining why open source DRM is impossible. He correctly points out that there’s a big difference between encryption like SSL (which certainly admits of open source implementation) and digital rights management:

In SSL you have a sender, a recipient and an attacker. The attacker is never supposed to be in possession of the cleartext. It doesn’t matter, however, if the recipient gains access to the cleartext. That’s why you can have open source SSL.

In DRM you only have a sender and an attacker, who is also the recipient. DRM relies on the attacker/recipient only gaining access to the cleartext while their machine is in the grips of non-user-accessible code that restricts what they can do with the cleartext (in particular, DRM seeks to ensure that the cleartext can’t be saved back to the drive while still in the clear).

And so, obviously, DRM implementations can’t, by definition, be user-modifiable. And there are probably a lot of people out there who ain’t gonna like it too much when they figure it out. Including, ironically, publishers. → see also: my rant, Adam Engst’s rant, Dan Burk’s paper (PDF) and Cory Doctorow’s classic rant.

Oh, and just for the record: whoa.

3 Responses to “Opening up”

  1. No one in Particular Says:

    Open Source does not mean user-modifiable.
    NetTrek is an open source game,, where user modified binaries are not allowed to participate in games. TIVO uses the open source Linux kernel, but has DRM provisions.

  2. shonk Says:

    You’re making the mistake of thinking that something is either 100% open source or 100% closed source. Both of the examples you cite, especially TiVO, are a mixture of the two.

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