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Cyberpunk

Pay-Per Pushers

By Joab Jackson | Posted 5/30/2001

One thing I know: The entertainment industry, in all its various guises, is scheming hard to make us forget about the concept of ownership.

You know the way you think you "own" that book or album sitting on your shelf? Ha! Companies are finding that for the first time, thanks to digital technologies, they can offer precisely controlled pay-as-you-go methods of entertainment delivery. And don't think they won't push hard to make us buy them. Sure, you may have read On the Road until the dust jacket fell off, they will say, but shouldn't Jack Kerouac's estate be compensated each and every time you thumb through the thing?

Take this high-definition digital television that supposedly everyone will be using a few years from now. Part of the advantage digital TV signals offer is that they can be set to allow or not allow viewers to record shows from the TV video-out jacks. No more recording for later or cutting out the commercials. DVD players also come hobbled. Unlike VHS tapes, the contents of DVDs can't be easily re-recorded on a VCR or computer.

The reason for these precautions seem sensible enough. Broadcasters and movie studios don't want their products to be uploaded and spread all over the Internet or copied and resold illegally. But isn't it convenient that they lock out home taping as well? All the better to make sure each copy is paid for and each program is watched with commercials intact.

The same control fetish can be found in the publishing world. Electronic books come with restrictions that their paper predecessors never enjoyed. Licenses for Adobe eBooks, for instance, forbid these works to be "read aloud" or to be lent to others--even if the work is in the public domain. Another company, goReader, is trying to convince colleges and universities to replace all those heavy textbooks with electronic versions that can be read on the company's lightweight electronic reader. While this will no doubt be considerably easier on students' backs, it might not be so easy on their wallets, as goReader is promising textbook publishers that its service will eliminate the used-book market. "[G]oReader sells only new book content, which cannot be resold or shared," the company's Web site boasts. GoReader is trying to make e-texts an enticement for publishers by not only eliminating printing costs but also by eliminating used-book stores, long the stomping grounds of cost-conscious students.

Heck, maybe goReader can even rent its wares by the month. That's essentially the plan of the new online music services MusicNet--run by RealNetwork, Bertelsmann AG, AOL Time Warner, and the EMI Group--and Duet, offered by Sony. As The New York Times reports, "neither service will allow users to purchase the music permanently," at least not for now. Instead, consumers will be charged monthly subscription fees for a set number of songs. "When a user downloads a song, it remains available for 30 days, at which point the user can decide to renew the license for 30 more days, as long as the monthly fee is paid again," the Times reports; a typical $10 monthly subscription might include the ability to download or listen to 75 songs. Songs cannot be transferred to portable players or computer hard drives.

What a switch from how things are done now! When I buy an album, it is mine forever and ever, to be played on whatever hardware I choose. If I don't like it, I can trot down to the used-CD store and trade it for something more appealing. If I had to pay monthly fees for all the songs I listen to, well, it'd be cheaper to pay some cover band to come to my house and play them live.

Subscriptions are good for some things: magazines, Internet connections, cable. The Internet company NetFlix offers a nifty subscription model where you can rent as many DVDs as you want a month for $20. But music? Perhaps the music industry is so enthusiastic about the subscription model for the same reason software makers such as Microsoft are, however silly renting a word processor seems. As the tech-news site Cnet explains, the trouble with selling software is that revenue is dependent on sales of the latest products. If a company has a big hit--say, Windows 95, or Janet Jackson's latest--profits spike, which is great for the company that year but does nothing for it in years to come (until the next version of Windows or the next Janet CD, and neither comes around annually). Investors want nice, steady, growing profits. Regular subscriptions make for a smooth, steady income flow. If revenues fall a little flat, just jack up the monthly rates to meet the quarterly expectations, as AOL just did.

Whether the public will subscribe to such ideas is another question. People might just get fed up with all these restrictions on what they can read, listen to, and watch and just go back to earlier forms of entertainment--maybe sitting on the porch on summer evenings with a cool glass of lemonade, chatting it up with the neighbors. No subscription required.

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