Pluralistic: It's been twenty years since my Microsoft DRM talk (18 Jun 2024)

Today's links

A photo of me from the summer of 2020, taken by Paula Mariel Salischiker for Rolling Stone Argentina. I'm sitting in a red leather armchair, talking with one hand held out. I'm wearing a Pirate Bay tee. The background has been replaced with the destop wallpaper that shipped with Windows XP. Over my left shoulder is a Microsoft Clippy with a yellow speech-bubble. In the bubble is EFF's DRM logo, a monstrous padlock and the letters 'DRM.'

It's been twenty years since my Microsoft DRM talk (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read my June 17, 2004 Microsoft Research speech about DRM, a talk that went viral two decades ago, and reassess its legacy:

It's been 20 years (and one day) since I gave that talk. It wasn't my first talk like that, but at the time, it was the most successful talk I'd ever given. I was still learning how to deliver a talk at the time, tinkering with different prose and delivery styles (to my eye, there's a lot of Bruce Sterling in that one, something that's still true today).

I learned to give talks by attending sf conventions and watching keynotes and panel presentations and taking mental notes. I was especially impressed with the oratory style of Harlan Ellison, whom I heard speak on numerous occasions, and by Judith Merril, who was a wonderful mentor to me and many other writers:

I was also influenced by the speakers I'd heard at the many political rallies I'd attended and helped organize; from the speakers at the annual Labour Day parade to the anti-nuclear proliferation and pro-abortion rights marches I was very involved with. I also have vivid memories of the speeches that Helen Caldicott gave in Toronto when I was growing up, where I volunteered as an usher:

When I helped found a dotcom startup in the late 1990s, my partners and I decided that I'd do the onstage talking; we paid for a couple hours of speaker training from an expensive consultant in San Francisco. The only thing I remember from that session was the advice to look into the audience as much as possible, rather than reading from notes with my head down. Good advice, but kinda obvious.

The impetus for that training was my onstage presentation at the first O'Reilly P2P conference in 2001. I don't quite remember what I said there, but I remember that it made an impression on Tim O'Reilly, which meant a lot to me then (and now):

I don't remember who invited me to give the talk at Microsoft Research that day, but I think it was probably Marc Smith, who was researching social media at the time by data-mining Usenet archives to understand social graphs. I think I timed the gig so that I could kill three birds with one stone: in addition to that talk, I attended (and maybe spoke at?) that year's Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference, and attended an early preview of the soon-to-launch Sci Fi Museum (now the Museum of Pop Culture). I got to meet Nichelle Nichols (and promptly embarrassed myself by getting tongue-tied and telling her how much I loved the vocals she did on her recording of the Star Wars theme, something I'm still hot around the ears over, though she was a pro and gently corrected me, "I think you mean Star *Trek"):

But the start of that trip was the talk at Microsoft Research; I'd been on the Microsoft campus before. That startup I did? Microsoft tried to buy us, which prompted our asshole VCs to cram the founders and steal our equity, which created so much acrimony that the Microsoft deal fell through. I was pretty bitter at the time, but in retrospect, I really dodged a bullet – for one thing, the deal involved my going to work for Microsoft as a DRM evangelist. I mean, talk about the road not taken!

This was my first time back at Microsoft as an EFF employee. There was some pre-show meet-and-greet-type stuff, and then I was shown into a packed conference room where I gave my talk and had a lively (and generally friendly) Q&A. MSR was – and is – the woolier side of Microsoft, where all kinds of interesting people did all kinds of great research.

Indeed, almost every Microsoft employee I've ever met was a good and talented person doing the best work they could. The fact that Microsoft produces such a consistent stream of garbage products and crooked business practices is an important testament to the way that a rotten organization can be so much less than the sum of its parts.

I'm a fully paid up subscriber to Ronald Coase's "Theory of the Firm" (not so much his other views):

Coase says the reason institutions exist is to enable people to work together with lowered "coordination costs." In other words, if you and I are going to knit a sweater together, we're going to need to figure out how to make sure that we're not both making the left sleeve. Creating an institution – the Mafia, the Catholic Church, Microsoft, a company, a co-op, a committee that puts on a regional science fiction con – is all about minimizing those costs.

As Yochai Benkler pointed out in 2002, the coolest and most transformative thing about the internet is that it let us do more complex collective work with smaller and less structured institutions:

That was the initial prompt for my novel Walkaway, which asked, "What if we could build luxury hotels and even space programs with the kind of (relatively) lightweight institutional overheads associated with Wikipedia and the Linux kernel?"

So the structure of institutions is really important. At the same time, I'm skeptical of the idea that there are "good companies" and "bad companies." Small businesses, family businesses, and other firms that aren't exposed to the finance sector can reflect their leaders' personalities, but it's a huge mistake to ascribe personalities to the companies themselves.

That's how you get foolish ideas like "Apple is a good company because they embrace paid service and Google is a bad company because they make money from surveillance." Apple will spy on you, too, if they can:

Disney and Fox weren't Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers making goo-goo eyes at each other across the table at MPA meetings. They were two giant public companies, and any differences between them were irrelevancies and marketing myths:

I think senior management's personalities do matter (see, for example, the destruction of Boeing after it was colonized by sociopaths from McDonnell Douglas), but the influence of those personalities is much less important than the constraints that competition and regulation impose on companies. In other words, an asshole can run a company that delivers good products at fair prices under ethical conditions – provided that failing to do so will cost more in lost business and fines than they stand to make by cheating:

Microsoft is a company founded and run by colossal assholes. Bill Gates is a monster and he surrounded himself with monsters, and they hired monsters to fill out the courts of their corporate palaces:

To the extent that good things come out of Microsoft – some of its games products, the odd piece of hardware, important papers from MSR – it's in spite of the leadership; it's the result of constraints imposed by competition and regulation – and that's why Microsoft pursued such an aggressive program of extinguishing its competitors and capturing its regulators.

In retrospect, I think one of my goals in that talk was to convince those people doing good work for a rotten institution to go elsewhere and do other things. Certainly, that's one of the goals I pursue in the talks I give today. At the time, some of Microsoft's highest-profile technologists were publicly resigning over the company's war on free/open source software, so it wasn't an unrealistic goal:

What I did not expect what that publishing the talk on my site and blogging it on Boing Boing would spark a wave of public interest that would get its message in front of several orders of magnitude more people than I spoke to at Microsoft that day. Partly, that was because I released the talk into the public domain, using the brand-new Creative Commons Public Domain Declaration (which was later replaced with the CC0 mark, due to legal issues with its drafting):

Some mix of the content of the speech, the spirit of the moment, and the novelty of that wide open license sparked a ton of interest. Jason Kottke recorded an audio version that Andy Baio hosted:

My brutalist ASCII transcript was quickly converted to beautiful HTML by Matt Haughey and Anil Dash:

For people who needed a hardcopy, there was Patrick Berry's printer-friendly stylesheet:

Multiple people recorded (and sold!) audio versions, and then there were all the fan translations, into Danish, French, Finnish, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese (both EU and Brazilian), Spanish and Swedish. I stayed in touch with some of those translators, and they helped me translate the position papers I wrote for UN WIPO meetings. Those papers were so effective that ratfuckers from the copyright lobby started to steal them and hide them in the UN toilets (!):

Re-reading the speech for my podcast on Sunday, I expected to be struck by the anachronisms in it, and there were a few of those to be sure. But far more clear was the common thread running from this talk to other talks I gave that took on a significant life of their own, like my 2011 "War On General Purpose Computing" talk for CCC:

And my work on Adversarial Interoperability:

And my most recent work, on enshittification:

In other words, I've been saying the same thing – in different ways – for more than 20 years. That could be depressing, but I actually found it uplifting. Two decades ago, I was radicalized by a fear that the internet would be seized by corporations and governments and transformed into a system of surveillance and control. I found my way into a job at EFF, where I worked with colleagues across multiple disciplines – coders, lawyers and activists – to fight this force.

At the time, this was a fringe cause. Most of the traditional activists I'd come up with in the feminist, antiwar, antiracist, environmental and labour movement viewed digital rights as a distraction and dismissed its partisans as sad, self-obsessed nerds who mistook fights over the management of Star Trek message boards for civil rights struggles:

I thought I was right then, and I think history has borne me out. The point of waging these fights – both in the wide public sphere and within political movements – is to get people activated before it's too late. Every day that goes by is a day when the internet becomes more inhospitable to political organizing for a better world – more surveillant, more controlling. I believed then – and believe today – that the internet isn't more important that the other fights I waged as a young activist, but I think that the internet is fundamental to those fights.

Saving the planet, smashing patriarchy, overthrowing tyranny and freeing labor are all fights that will be coordinated – Coase style – on the internet. Without a free, fair and open internet, those fights are infinitely harder to win.

The project of getting people to understand, care about, and fight for digital rights is a marathon, not a sprint. When I joined EFF, it was already 12 years old. There were six people in the org then (I was the seventh). Today, there's more than a hundred of us, and we're stretched so thin! The 30+ year old idea that internet policy will intersect with every part of every fight has been utterly vindicated.

Back in 2004, I asked Microsoft why they were willing to fight the US government to the death over antitrust enforcement, but were such wimps when confronted with the entertainment industry's demands for DRM. 20 years later, I think I know the answer: Microsoft understood that DRM would let them usurp the relationship between creative workers, entertainment industry companies, and audiences. Their perfect instincts for seeking out and capitalizing on opportunities to seize monopoly power drove them to make deliberately defective products, in the belief that their market power would let them cram those products down our throats:

Here's a link to the podcast episode:

And here's direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your stuff for free forever):

And here's the RSS feed for my podcast:

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Everything we know about traffic-calming is wrong

#15yrsago Truth about myths about myths about file sharing in Canada

#15yrsago Everyone wants to be a copyright gatekeeper, and gatekeepers are bad for copyright

#10yrsago After federal document-snatch, ACLU case over Florida cops’ phone surveillance collapses

#10yrsago Women in Video Games: women as background decoration

#10yrsago Top US patent judge resigns after ethics breach

#10yrsago John Oliver to FCC Chairman: prove you aren’t a dingo!

#10yrsago Econobollocks: three ways that economic figures are misused in politics

#5yrsago Vancouver school-board adds gender-neutral pronoun

#5yrsago Berlin Senate approves five-year, citywide rent freeze

#5yrsago Karl Schroeder’s “Stealing Worlds”: visionary science fiction of a way through the climate and inequality crises

Upcoming appearances (permalink)

A photo of me onstage, giving a speech, holding a mic.

A screenshot of me at my desk, doing a livecast.

Recent appearances (permalink)

A grid of my books with Will Stahle covers..

Latest books (permalink)

A cardboard book box with the Macmillan logo.

Upcoming books (permalink)

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a middle-grades graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Enshittification: a nonfiction book about platform decay. Today's progress: 782 words (12922 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

Latest podcast: My 2004 Microsoft DRM Talk>

This work – excluding any serialized fiction – is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla