Landing : Athabascau University

Sole and Despotic Dominion

Cory Doctorow is on excellent form discussing the evils of DRM and the meaning of ownership. The title is lifted from William Blackstone, referring to what it means to own something -  "that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe." Doctorow's central argument here is that, at least in the US (where DMCA 1201 denies people the right to break DRM locks), the presence of copyrighted DRM'd code in almost every object manufactured, from books to rectal thermometers, means that they cannot ever be owned by anyone other than their manufacturer, protected by law and unaccountable to anyone. 

"DMCA 1201 gave publishers and movie studios and game companies the power to make up their own private laws and outsource their enforcement to the public courts and police."

Among the results of this are that security researchers cannot reveal flaws that may be dangerous or even deadly (think cars, insulin pumps, etc, not to mention the Internet of Hackable Things) while criminals can exploit them freely. It means that companies like Volkswagen can conceal cheating on emissions tests, that makers of thermostats can prevent you from controlling heat in your own home, that books you bought can be taken away from you on a whim or an error, that printer manufacturers can introduce code to break your printer if you don't use their cartridges the way they want you to use them, that security agencies can demand that manufacturers let them use your webcam to spy on you, that abandoned games on a long extinct platform cannot be ported to modern hardware, that your watch will stop working if its manufacturer goes bust, and so on. It means that, mostly without our consent or knowledge, we no longer own what we own. As Doctorow puts it:

"There’s a word for this: feudalism. In feudalism, property is the exclusive realm of a privileged few, and the rest of us are tenants on that property. In the 21st century, DMCA-enabled version of feudalism, the gentry aren’t hereditary toffs, they’re transhuman, immortal artificial life-forms that use humans as their gut-flora: limited liability corporations."


  • Rory McGreal November 7, 2016 - 8:43am

    David Wiley put it this way: "Vendors can control how, when, where, and with what specific brands of technological assistance audiences are able to access content. You buy, but you don't get!" I was thinking in terms of DRM on digital textbooks and did not think of it being applicable to smart devices also. DRM  software needs deep permissions into the operating system so DRM can stop normal operating system functions in ANY device. Audrey Watters puts it this way: "We all just “share” and “rent” on the powerful platforms of Silicon Valley billionaires; this is far from a satisfactory alternative

    Can we not own & control our own property?


  • Steve Swettenham February 1, 2018 - 3:02pm

    2018 now, and is there a new term for feudalism on a global scale? (apart from Fascism -i.e., I/we know what's best for you)