You can’t play Godfinger any more. It’s gone. ngmoco, the developer, removed the game (plus a couple of others) from app stores during February – and it’ll stop working all together at the end of this month. The raw economics of mobile gaming. But what happens to games that are packaged as apps when they’re discontinued? Looks like they disappear completely, as Jared Nelson points out on TouchArcade. No shoebox of carts under the bed, no stack of dusty DVDs, no folder of neglected binaries. Gone. Absent from the record.
The closed nature of mobile platforms means you can’t capture a binary for the archives and, unless the Library of Congress has an archiving scheme I don’t know about, this piece of intellectual labour will be removed from the record for good come April, leaving a tiny but perceptible hole in the timeline. This isn’t even a DRM story. It’s just about the mechanics of distributing entertainment in the app era. Is it important? Should we just accept it: the ruthless logic of 21st Century digital creation? Or are we going to be freaking out in fifty years when we realise we’ve built a one-way conveyor-belt to oblivion for digital work and we’re all going “what were they actually DOING back in the early twenty-first Century? They seem to have left no trace.”
The year is 1823. Nathaniel Burrell, sheep farmer, has stumbled upon a method for duplicating sheep. To cut a long story short, after years of essentially random cross-breeding he now can produce new sheep on demand at no cost. A quick twist of the tail of one of his miraculous cross-bred sheep and you’ve got a brand new one, just the like the old one, just standing there, blinking.
Burrell keeps the news to himself and makes a handsome turn selling the newly-minted sheep at the local livestock market but pretty soon people notice the smart new horse and cart in the drive and start to wonder where all the extra sheep in his fields are coming from and then a lad spies the whole process from behind a hedge and soon enough everyone knows you can get free sheep up at Nathaniel’s place.
To begin with it’s just the local miscreants but fairly soon everyone’s up there, day and night, picking up free sheep and herding them back to their own fields or back yards or box rooms. Of course, it’s not long before people figure out that the duplicate sheep have the same ability: quick twist, new sheep. Blimey.
So now everyone’s got their own and they’re busy making more for their friends. Nathaniel is pissed off. As far as he can tell, these people are stealing his stuff. “These sheep are mine!” he yells as the vicar and his wife lead four fluffy new sheep down the lane. “What do you mean, they’re yours? They’re free aren’t they?” “Yes, but they’re mine! They’re my invention, my thing!” “Does it cost you anything when I make a new one?” asks the vicar. “Well, no, but they’re still mine. And besides, I make my living from selling these bloody sheep. Nobody’s buying them now are they? Not now they can just twist-and-go!”
“I see your point, friend, but I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. Sheep are free now. I think you’re just going to have to get used to it.”
There follows a period of disquiet, during which Nathaniel makes a spirited effort to persuade the world that these free sheep are all really his. There are ups and downs. He wins a few small victories – various slow-witted judges are persuaded that the duplicate sheep actually belong to farmer Burrell, some people are even punished, although transportation seems a bit rich for the theft of a sheep that even its legal owner doesn’t actually need and even wise judges sometimes changed their minds.
Farmer Burrell even invests a few hundred guineas in an elaborate and annoying system of padlocks and sticks, which he calls SRM (Sheep Rights Management) which is meant to protect his rights by stopping people from making copies of his sheep. But the system is awkward and some people can’t get it to work at all (and it hurts the sheep) so it’s soon abandoned. Nathaniel’s not really winning the argument and the whole time people are just making more and more copies of his precious sheep.
An economist friend comes round one afternoon: “the problem with your sheep is that they’re not rivalrous any more and they have precious little excludability. They’re basically a public good now.” His friend encourages him to give up on the law suits and the nasty letters and the increasingly desperate efforts to stop people from copying his sheep. He’s just banging his head against a wall. The world has changed.
In the meantime, of course, the price of an ordinary sheep, bought in a market or at the farm gate, has fallen to a fraction of its pre-Nathaniel value and a lot of people have decided there’s no point trying to sell them at all. They’re opening innovative lamb restaurants and sheep-based circuses and generally adding value to their essentially worthless livestock. Some are given away free with another recent invention: the newspaper, some are fluffed up and sold as ‘premium sheep’ for ‘sheep collectors’. Nathaniel is resigned.
After a few years, Nathaniel has given up on making money from selling his sheep and now specialises in a range of sheep-themed experiences: a theme park, a line of clothing, club nights. It’s a blast – and he’s even making some money. And since farmer Jackson came up with a way of copying cows and farmer Finch pigs, the whole space has got a lot more competitive and everyone’s more-or-less forgotten the days when you used to have to pay for your sheep. Pay for your sheep!
People object to DRM schemes on the basis of ownership – “it’s my music and I’ll play it where and when I want!” I usually stay out of this argument (it’s boring to be saying the same as everyone else isn’t it?). I’ve been thinking, though. I think my principle objection has more to do with memory. Especially, I suppose, as I get older, music for me is about memory as much as about immediate experience (it was probably standing outside the Hammersmith Palais the other day that got me thinking like this).
What terrifies me about downloading DRM tunes is the prospect of losing access to them in the future. What am I going to do in twenty years time when I’m sitting at my cute/retro PC staring at an encrypted vault full of music I can’t access because my DRM key has expired and the business that sold it to me went bust in 2021 (funky riverside loft cut off by the first great Thames flood, most likely)
More to the point, how are my kids going to recover the tunes that first made them quiver and swoon under the balcony at the Hammersmith Palais when the DRM technology, the hardware it was embedded in, the OS that ran it, the business that developed it and the label that sold it to them are all history?
Are we allowing the labels and the industry bodies to quietly wall up digital music in an inaccessible concrete tomb to which future generations will have no access? By permitting rights owners to fixate so ruthlessly on the short-term are we risking the creation of a decades-long digital dark age from which we’ll retain no memory at all?
Here’s a piece I’ve just written for The Guardian about music.
For ordinary human beings, music is the closest we come to the sublime. The history of recorded music is the history of better and better access to the sublime.
We have the recording industry to thank for this. In little more than a hundred years, the stable musical universe of Church and hearth has been blown apart. Music is everywhere and anyone in any reasonably developed place can be exposed to hours of new and varied music daily.
Much of the music we listen to now would not even have been possible without the recording industry. Music and recording technologies have worked together.
As a result, the contribution of the recording industry to the fund of human happiness cannot be underestimated. Which other business can claim ‘bliss’ as a day-to-day value? There can be few better examples of the role technology can play in social and cultural change. Music, and our lives, have been immeasurably improved by the efforts of the music business. So it’s doubly disappointing to watch the recording industry missing an epic opportunity, perhaps on the scale of the recorded music revolution itself.
The latest giant misstep involves a new CD format called ‘Super Audio’. To understand why Super Audio is a misstep you need to understand how the listening habits of music fans are changing. And for this purpose I’m going to invite you into my kitchen. On the counter by the breadbin is a two year-old Macintosh computer with a flat screen – our ‘Kitchen Cube’. On the Cube Apple’s excellent iTunes MP3 application cleverly catalogues over 35Gbytes of recorded music – 23 days of continuous music, it tells me. Almost all of this music has come from the big stack of CDs now gathering dust in our sitting room. To call this Macintosh our jukebox is to hugely understate its meaning to us. To this machine my wife and I have entrusted 8,000 tracks by hundreds of artists – a vivid summary of our lives as influenced by music.
The kitchen is the social hub of our home. We spend most of our time there and since we’ve added music to the room we listen to more of it, from a greater variety of artists and sources than ever before and we listen to it in very different ways.
It takes a while for old musical habits to fade. In the early days, choosing something to listen to would be much like choosing a CD. Think of an artist, flick through the library for an album. Double click to play. With time, though, new ways of selecting sounds emerge. How about dialling up a mood or an ambience? Type ‘happy’ (65 tracks by 47 artists) or ‘light’ (37 tracks) or something more abstract like ‘you’re’ (32) or ‘red’ (24) into iTunes and see what you get – a playlist linked across genres, periods and artists by a loose, often surpising, theme – creating unexpected connections. Tighten the theme for something more specific or just ‘shuffle’ the entire library for one surprise after another. Or play only the tunes you’ve listened to most in the last few weeks – or only the ones you’ve never listened to. This is a radically different way of encountering music and one that I don’t need to tell you is not possible in any other format.
So we, like millions of others, are busy inventing a new relationship to music, weaving it more tightly into our lives. Remarkably, though, all of this has been done despite the recording industry – it might even be illegal. And Super Audio, the latest development in the ongoing drama of ‘geeks vs. suits’ is a particularly insidious twist. You see, Super Audio CDs won’t play in a PC so I can’t add the apparently pristine sound from these discs to my library. So, as the ‘digital hub’ takes hold and early adopters reorganise their musical lives around MP3s, the industry is planning to take us down a new technological dead end. Instead of adapting to new habits – coming up with a way to charge for file sharing, for instance – they have devoted millions to a spurious enhancement to quality inaudible to ordinary music fans and left the next generation of eager consumers out in the cold. Far from bringing us closer to the sublime, the record business is ready to close it down.
I tried to date Hilary Rosen’s battle with the demons of high-tech. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to find this Usenet reference to her 1989 opposition to Digital Audio Tape (DAT) – perhaps the only real victim in recent years of the rights owners’ zeal. DAT was confined to a ‘pro-only’ ghetto after a prolonged battle with the music biz saw the imposition of an early DRM system and an artists’ levy. DAT is long forgotten but, with hindsight, should the rights owners have learnt from developing product for an early digital platform instead of just killing it? Would those lessons have been helpful in responding to the out-of-control misbehaviour of the new generation of digital consumers? That would be a ‘yes’.