If you put Microsoft at the center of your home entertainment system, be prepared to hand them the remote control, literally.
Following reports that digital television viewers were blocked from recording the new season of NBC's "Gladiators", Microsoft confirmed that it is preventing users from recording the show. They claim they were acting on behalf of NBC, and are in line with regulations set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in disrupting computer usage based upon the so-called "broadcast flag" that was transmitted alongside the show.
A Microsoft spokesperson told CNET News, "...Windows Media Center fully adheres to the flags used by broadcasters and content owners to determine how their content is distributed and consumed."
What is the broadcast flag?
The broadcast flag is a sequence of information transmitted alongside television programs as a kind of digital order telling viewers to not do certain things, such as record the show or share it with a friend.
Many of the large media companies and the FCC tried to make obeying the broadcast flag a law. However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation took the FCC to court, and US Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC had exceeded its authority, and that no such law could exist. Despite this ruling, it appears that Microsoft has decided to work directly with media companies to implement these rules anyway, restricting how and when you watch television.
Building such a system is no trivial task. To do this, Microsoft has gone to great lengths to restrict users from saving a television program to their computers, we call this kind of functionality an "antifeature," because it takes more work for Microsoft to prevent the user from saving the program, than if they were to leave just the default behavior alone. So instead of letting you record programs as you normally would, it locks you out and deletes the show before you can save it.
However, Microsoft hasn't just made a little tweak to their software to do this -- they have compiled an entire system built upon antifeatures. This antifeature platform is integrated into their Windows Media software and forms the basis of their Windows Vista operating system, and they are working hard to convince companies like NBC, that Microsoft can be in control of how and when you get to watch television. As creepy and as ridiculous as it may sound, this is their business strategy, and by getting this control, both the television and movie industry and computer users will be tied to Microsoft software.
Don't be fooled into their claims that they are following regulations by the FCC -- the court ruled that the FCC has no power to make such regulations. This is also claimed as a measure just to stop unauthorized file sharing, yet what Microsoft is doing is trying to make sure that they are on every end of the market, from how it is delivered, to how you watch it. As Ars Technica reporter Jacqui Cheng puts it, this is not about Microsoft preventing people from sharing files without permission, "[i]t's about the ability to strictly control how we consume content".
Microsoft wants to have that control, and this software is the way they are trying to get it. Software that is designed in this way is known as 'DRM', which stands for 'Digital Rights Management', and yet it is really just another way to restriction how consumers interact with things on their own computers and devices. Because of this restriction, we refer to DRM as 'Digital Restrictions Management'.
The alternative to DRM: free software
By far the best way to avoid DRM, is to refuse to use software that is infected with it. Better yet, you should choose software that tries to do the opposite of DRM -- software that gives you complete control. This kind of software is called "free software," and it is based upon the idea that software carries certain freedoms to you:
The freedom to use the software for any reason you wish -- including to the ability to hit the save button when you* wish.
The freedom to examine how the software works and make changes, similar to a car engine -- you can remove the bugs or soup it up.
The freedom to share the software with your neighbor, like photocopying a newspaper article or sharing class notes with a classmate.
The freedom to share your modified software with other people, similar to how mathematics and science have worked for centuries.
Now you may not be a computer programmer, or know how to understand or change computer programs, but there are plenty of people out there who do, and they are likely already making the kinds of fixes and changes you'd like to see, or are often part of a community willing to make those changes for you.
There are thousands of free software programmers, and many thousands of free software programs, and even complete free software operating systems. You usually won't find annoying antifeatures in a program, and if there were one, you can rest assured that other programmers will have removed it by the time you get to use it.
Conversely, software that doesn't give you these freedoms is software you cannot control, and we think that kind of software doesn't belong on your computer. We say, 'free software, free society' -- with free software, if we are each in control of our machines, then we are all in control of how we use them and what we use them for.
And, don't let Apple fool you into thinking that they are the alternative to DRM and Microsoft, they, too have their own DRM schemes, and seek to control the world in their own way, from branding their DRM music player, to entrenching the world in their proprietary formats and DRM music purchasing programs.
The alternative to Windows and Apple is software that you control, software that is guaranteed to give you all of the freedoms you need to be in control. Free software.
There is a good chance you are already using free software, directly, such as using the Firefox web browser, or indirectly, by visiting a Web site that is sending you web pages with the Apache web-server. However, there are also entire, user-friendly operating systems that you can install on almost any laptop or desktop computer. So, if you are running Windows or Mac OS, consider replacing these with a free software based GNU/Linux operating system, such as gNewSense.
Using free software will take the control out of Microsoft's hands. With free software, you are in control.
: You can read Mako Hill's article on antifeatures, here: http://www.fsf.org/bulletin/2007/fall/antifeatures/
: It should be noted that this writer refers to a person that shares files as a "pirate," we think this is a bit of an extreme description that should be avoided. http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20080514-nbc-vista-copy-protection-snafu-reminds-us-why-drm-stinks.html
: gNewSense, a free software distribution of GNU/Linux http://www.gnewsense.org/