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Teach Greed

By Annalee Newitz

SINCE IT'S the season when we ideologically associate the act of purchasing copyrighted items with the experience of love and community, I thought I'd say a few words about how capitalism will be screwing you this year.

If you're like me and have a lot of nerdy and/or media-obsessed friends, you'll probably be spending your hard-earned cash on lots of sounds, images and/or software that have been saved onto various digital-storage media. Some of these media might include things like compact discs, videocassettes, digital versatile discs and hard drives. Because a lot of the content saved onto these media is owned by U.S. companies, you'll discover that your efforts to share a love of music or action movies with your friends will be thwarted.

Some compact discs can't be played in certain media players; music stored on the hard drive of an iPod can never be moved off the device and enjoyed on a different medium; digital versatile discs, it turns out, are only versatile if you play them in Hollywood cartel-approved devices, which do not include your Linux box; and if you try to join in the season of sharing by putting a bunch of old holiday TV specials up on your website, you may find a subpoena among your special-delivery packages from Mum.

Our toys are broken because entertainment companies have gigantic sticks jammed into their asses about something called "intellectual property," which they guard with everything from lawyers to cops. In their zeal to stop people from using their legitimately purchased content, these companies have gummed their media up with so much copy-prevention garbage that it's practically impossible to watch or listen to anything at your leisure. You might as well wrap your digital-media presents in chains.

And then, after you eagerly unchain your presents, get ready to see a lot of contracts called end-user license agreements (EULAs). These are the dense chunks of text that you always scroll through and ignore before hitting the "I Agree" button and installing the latest version of Windows. For nearly a decade, courts have been upholding these preposterous little things, despite the fact that you are rarely given the chance to see them before you buy something and, in fact, don't actually have to sign them. People have taken to calling them "click-through agreements" because when you click "I Agree" it's as binding as signing a contract.

What's even more insane are the terms that these contracts put forth. Some of them force you to agree that you won't publish reviews criticizing the product; others say that clicking through the contract means the vendor can check to see what other kinds of software you're running on your computer. Still others say that you can't uninstall the product using another vendor's software—which means that if you use Spybot Search and Destroy to remove the spyware that's bundled with a program, you could be violating your EULA.

Copy-prevention tech and EULAs make the whole gift-giving thing feel even more hypocritical and wrong than it already does. Why would I want to give my sweetie a neat entertainment device or program if it might spy on her or simply stop working if she tries to run it in a nonapproved player?

Nothing brings this issue into focus more than Marvel's recent lawsuit against the makers of a game called City of Heroes. Marvel, whose holdings include properties such as the characters Hulk and Wolverine, sued because City of Heroes allows players to build characters who look like some of Marvel's. Setting aside the already-bizarre idea that a "character" can be owned in this way, why the hell should these game makers be held responsible if some 10-year-old wants to play at being Wolverine in an imaginary world? It's not like the kid is creating a competing product. I mean, are people really going to stop reading the comic books and go to City of Heroes to watch dorks thrash around pretending to be the Hulk?

Yup, this is all part of the entertainment industry's plan to bring you a happy season of giving. But remember, your imaginations cannot roam free because they might tread upon somebody's copyright or trademark. And you cannot share human culture and creations with one another unless you also agree to give up unreasonable amounts of privacy and consumer choice. Unfortunately, by existing in linear time, you've agreed to experience the holidays that corporate capitalism built. And you didn't even get to click the "I Agree" button.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who does not abide by click-through agreements unless they are written in the blood of executives.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the December 8-14, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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