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Yet Another Reason to Avoid Vista: The Pervasiveness of Virtual Serfdom

October 14th, 2006

As if there weren’t enough reasons not to get Vista already, Microsoft keeps coming out new ones. This time it’s one related to the license: Microsoft will limit the number of times you can transfer Vista’s license to a new computer. So let’s say you buy Vista for your existing computer, then you decide to get a Mac, for example, and license it to that. The next time you buy a new computer, or if you want to simply switch to a different computer, you’ll have to buy Vista all over again–even if you disable Vista on your older machines. Even if this will not effect you directly, the whole idea is offensive in principle.

This is not true on Macs–in fact, Mac OS X doesn’t require activation–hell, Mac OS X doesn’t even have a freakin’ serial number or “product key”! They just trust you to use it honestly. But they wisely do not even try to do anti-piracy measures which would probably accomplish little aside from massively annoying their customers. Now, it is true that Apple tends to care more about selling hardware–heck, before Mac OS 7.5, the Mac OS was always free. But in principle, Apple’s way is far more attractive.

The idea of individual ownership is quickly disappearing, and is being replaced by a system akin to serfdom, where the serf (you) is not allowed actual ownership, so that the master (the corporation) maintains control. As the information age develops, “license agreements” pervade in a way that limit your ownership of something. If you buy a movie on your computer, the studios want to limit the license agreement so that even after you’ve paid your money, the studios still control how you watch the movie, and on which appliances. While the claim is that they are trying to avoid piracy, that’s bull–they just want to limit it so they can sell you the same thing all over again in a different format, and still control what you “own.”

Examples of this abound. One variation is the “region encoding” of DVDs, which restricts the buyer of a DVD to play that DVD in the same geographic region where they bought it. For example, I live in Japan, which is region 2; however, I want to buy DVDs from the U.S., which is region 1. But when I try to play a region 1 DVD in a region 2 player, it won’t work; they want to force me to buy the DVD in Japan. Why? To fight piracy, they’ll claim. Again, bull. Pirates can easily, effortlessly get rid of the region encoding. They don’t want to stop pirates, they want to stop legitimate consumers from getting around regional pricing and release dates. If I buy DVDs in Japan, they cost about 50% more, and are usually released months after the U.S. release. Region encoding is not to protect from pirating, it is to protect the profits of the movie studios.

In short, any license agreement at the individual consumer level has one purpose: to make more money for the vendor by denying true ownership to the purchaser.

The whole “licensing” business is as if you bought a new car, but the “license agreement” only allowed you to drive the car to work, and you are forbidden to do shopping or leisure using the vehicle; for that, you need to buy another car. And just to make sure you follow the license agreement, the car dealer will have someone follow your car around to make sure you honor it, ready to disable your car should you stop off at the convenience store. That is the effective analogy for what these “intellectual property” vendors are doing.

Microsoft’s one-license-transfer-only policy could be equated to giving a car to a new family member. When you buy the car, you may sell it or give it to one person, but that person must then keep it or throw it away–the car may not be given to another person again, ever.

The Vista scheme is a sham because the transfer of the license to a new computer could be performed in a way that ensures the copy on the older machine is disabled. But the probable reason Microsoft is doing this is because their whole “activation” scheme costs them money in terms of hiring telephone operators to help people with the process; to avoid the extra cost of assuming you’re a criminal, they want to limit your legal property rights.

Here’s a radical concept: when you buy something, you own it. You can do whatever the hell you want with it. Since information can be duplicated, and that is a form of stealing, that can be forbidden rightfully. But beyond that, what you own, you control. This whole license crap is nothing but a way to deprive individuals of the right of legitimate ownership.

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