Lessons from Ancient Greece

Tantalus by Gioacchino Assereto

Surely everybody knows the story of Tantalus. (If you don’t, Google it.) Basically, he ticked off some Greek god and was punished to spend eternity with his feet affixed to the ground. Above him was an apple tree, with a glistening apple. When he reached up for it, the apple would wither away temporarily. Likewise, a glistening pool of water would dry up whenever he reached down to quench his thirst.

This is, of course, how we came to use the word tantalize. Interesting, huh? Well, at least for everyone but poor Mr. Tantalus! Well, today we’re going to do something many people forget to do – learn from the past. Today I’m going to revisit one of my favorite pet peeves, Digital Rights Management (DRM for short). DRM is the greatest evil of the 21st Century. You may recall me writing about this a while back. Well, it’s still around and its evil is very sharp, very penetrating, and above all, very frustrating.

Didn’t want to read my old article? Okay here goes: When people attempt to sell software or media online, sometimes they fear that it will be pirated, because it is essentially just copiable information. My psychologically-minded brother says that evil is derived from control, and control is derived from fear and ignorance. So, some of these vendors use DRM to control their product, hoping that it will discourage people from copying it.

When you buy a song from an online music store, or a piece of software from Adobe or IBM, you have to “validate” or “activate” it using a key. That process means your computer “phones home” (bonus points if you get the 80s reference) and begs permission for you to use the software. The problem is, there are two facts in play here:

  1. If someone really wants to pirate a piece of software, it’s accomplished rather easily.
  2. DRM decreases the product’s stability and reliability, and makes the functionality of the software you purchased ENTIRELY DEPENDENT on the vendor’s existence and willingness to acknowledge your purchase.

Put 2 and 2 together and what do you get? A recipe for disaster. The only ones affected by DRM are those trying to do the right thing and pay for their software. Now that you know what DRM is, let’s couple this to the other great evil of the 21st century, the “Call Center.” (Article on that coming soon.) Mix it all in a bowl and pour it over a hot steaming bowl of Java-based [low-quality] software replete with misspelled words and what do you get? The software program known as SPSS, sold by IBM.

Big Blues

One of my VIP clients is a statistics student who needed to use SPSS Visualization Designer as a learning tool. When you buy this software, you get a CD with a license code – you simply install the software from the CD, then type in the license code (e.g. ABCD1234). At that point, the software may “phone home” to ask for IBM’s blessing. However, sometimes things go haywire. So what does one do? You email IBM and they provide another code.

Wrong! We received a new code, and entered it after a maze of menus,  at which point it lied and said we’re all set. When you attempt to start the program, it says, and I quote, “Licence not found.” This then called up the validation menu again… at this point, allow me to quote an ancient Roman phrase: AD INFINITUM.

Okay, fine. I expect Java-based software to flail all over the ground while trying to pose as usable technology. But… I also expect IBM to make good on their promise that you’ll be able to use something you bought from them. So I called them up.

  1. First, I called 800-543-2185 – that turned out to be their sales number.
  2. Then I called 888-426-4409 – they said sorry, you’re a student. When I informed them that it’d be easier to pirate their software than deal with them, they eventually gave me another number,
  3. 800-426-7378, which told me to email SPSS support. When I refused and demanded a supervisor, they gave me the number mentioned in step 2.

Al Final

Luckily, since i’m not a robot like one of them, I caught on fairly quickly and gave up. The only productive thing I could do was write this article exposing them. As of this writing, I still haven’t figured out the issue, but of course I’ll solve it (and the host of Java errors flying around the screen).

Now as is customary on this blog, I’d like to admit that SPSS might be a cool product when it works, and then wish 1,000 fiery deaths on those SPSS programmers for encumbering it with DRM. However, a lot of software is coming this way nowadays, and unfortunately that means most software on App stores. The Cloud is all about control, and it’s not always good. Let’s just hope other companies have support people with brains larger than, say, Kalamata olives.

Myths weren’t just entertainment – they were forewarnings. In other words, are you going to be a force for good or for evil in this world?


So I’m on my way to solving the issue now – just have to clear up that host of Java errors. I wanted to make a couple more points. First, even if the issue were something easily solved or it was an issue with this specific computer, I alone can solve the issue. Why?

  1. SPSS doesn’t have any human beings who can help over the telephone.
  2. Were they to have human beings, they would have next to no training and would likely read from a script and tell me to clear my cache and cookies.

Thanks to number 2, I know their products better than they do, and am more likely to solve them.

Epilogue Secundus

DRM doesn’t make any business sense – in freshman business classes, you learn about business models – Product manufacturing, product retailing, product rental, and of course services. DRM is a one-time purchase but has the continued dependency relationship like a rental. Think of DRM software as if it were a car: You bought a new Chevy Malibu for $25,000 cash, and it’s yours. You bring it home and put it in your garage. If your dealership (or more likely Chevy) goes out of business, your car ceases to function. I smell idiocy.

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2 Responses to Lessons from Ancient Greece

  1. Ian says:

    That was excellent. The one thing I could add is the financial downside of DRM. The cost of implementing DRM is high because its usually encryption based. Which means they usually either have in-house cryptologists who work on the DRM schemes with the programmers (Very high salaries) or they must buy a product from a company that specializes in DRM…again very expensive. What that means is that by wrapping products in DRM you may be slightly increasing sales (though there’s more evidence that you could be actually decreasing your sales). However, even the wildest prediction about the money you “lose” via piracy pales in comparison to the expense of DRM. You are either cutting into your profit margins or you are passing the expense on to the consumer which–guess what–cuts into revenue by reducing demand…the very thing DRM is supposed to prevent. Even from an economics standpoint, its a dumb idea.

  2. Joel S. says:

    I got burned by DRM for WMA’s. I bought dozens and dozens, maybe even 100 or more, of WMA’s of songs, even whole albums, on Napster feeling good that I was doing it legally at 99 cents a pop. Then I decided to abandon Microsoft Windows XP and switch to Fedora. Now my music became unplayable. I had to transfer it from WMA to MP3. I looked for ways and download all the free apps to remove DRM but none of them worked. Most were dependent on being able to play the WMA and then rerecord it as an MP3. I came across one Windows based program that had some promise but it said it needed to get permission from Napster. I installed Napster on my brother’s computer and when I tried to play them back Napster said the files were outdated and I needed to purchase them again! I wasn’t about to spend hundreds of dollars restoring my MP3 collection so now those files are sitting in a folder on my portable hard drive labled “DRM — Useless.” I was much better off with those I ripped from CD’s directly and those I got for nine cents each from a Russian site. So much for doing it the “right way” and making sure all those pop stars got their royalties.

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