Anyone who has ever gotten into a discussion with me about Wal-Mart knows how I feel about what I call “Wal-Mart economics”. As much as I love free enterprise (if you want to call our system “free”) and the capitalism that (in large part) makes our great nation work, Wal-Mart economics tends to make my shoulders sag and my outlook on Liberterianism droop…
Wal-Mart economics has very little to do with Wal-Mart’s business practices, or whether or not they’re good for America. It has everything to do with the “sell-out mentality” that you almost inevitably must assume when you walk through the doors. It’s this mentality that says: “I could spend $50 on a blender that will last me a decade, but I’d rather spend $20 on a blender. It may only last me a year, but at least I saved a few clams.” What I’m talking about here is the fact that so many Americans are so willing to sell out to rock-bottom prices, they’ll buy inferior products.
Now, thanks to some bright people at Universal Entertainment and some content company called Spiralfrog, Universal will be opening their entire library for free download. All you have to do is watch some advertising while their swill swirls onto your hard drive. Or is that all?
Oh yeah – they didn’t mention that you have to be running the Windows OS to use their download software or listen to their files. And they didn’t mention that those files will be encrypted with digital rights management (or DRM) that restricts how you use them – including limiting which players can play them, preventing them from being burned to CD, and forcing them to be used on only one computer. Oh – we’re sorry – you can’t download this song to your iPod. And you’re not allowed to burn it to CD to listen to in your car. And – oh – we’re real sorry for any inconvenience here, but if you wanted to stick that music on your laptop for your next business trip…well, that’s a no-go. Just doesn’t work for us.
Let’s take a look at some other ad-supported mediums. Television is a great example: it’s ad-supported. You watch your show, and since you’re not paying to watch that show, you watch some advertisements too. If you choose to tape that show (with or without those advertisements), you can do lots of things with the tape. You can transfer it to your digital media player, watch it on your PC, store it away for a long as you want, or even (gasp!) bring it to a friend’s house and watch it on their VCR. As long as you don’t give away copies to anyone else, or sell them for that matter, you’re pretty much A-OK.
How about music, then? If you go to the record store and buy a CD, you skip the advertising. But you now have lots of things you can do with that CD. You can make an archival copy of it, and store it away in case the original gets damaged. You can rip it to your iPod, plop it on your laptop for a rainy day, burn tracks from it onto a mix-CD, or loan it to a friend for the weekend. Furthermore (and this is key here, people), you can sell that CD you bought to someone else for its fair market value.
Universal, Apple and their record-industry ilk are claiming that they’re “revolutionizing” the music industry with “the next big thing” – when they’re really coming up with new and exciting ways to restrict your freedom to use what you rightfully own. It started with iTunes, and the other pay music services: you pay us, we’ll let you download some music, but we’re going to restrict what you can do with it. No more of this “fair use” stuff – you know, making good use of what you’ve purchased fair-and-square.
Now, they’ve come up with a new way to apply Wal-Mart economics to the music industry: You watch some ads, and in exchange you’re allowed to download our music. But, unlike that television show that you “bought” by watching that advertising, you can’t do much with what they spoon-feed you. The music-industry corrolary to the general principle of Wal-Mart economics I spelled out above: Americans are willing to sell out to cheap music they can access without leaving the comforting glow of their computer monitor, or getting out their wallets, but they don’t seem to realize that the music they’re downloading is tainted with restrictions and conditions.
Maybe it goes back to the time-worn-and-proven adage that “you get what you pay for”. And I’m happy to pay for CDs, thanks – if I’m going to fork over my hard-earned money to you, I don’t want you slapping restrictions on what I can do with what I buy.