9 December 2007
There's been a lot of discussion about Western Digital's intentionally crippled network drive. Briefly, the device — a 1 Terabyte storage unit — can serve up files on the wide-area Internet. This lets you retrieve your files when you're traveling — except that a great many file types cannot be shared with other users "due to unverifiable media license authentication".
This is, of course, preposterous. Normally, I'd be content to let the market deal with it — why would anyone want to buy a crippled product? — but I'm concerned that more is going on. Western Digital isn't stupid; why have they done this? More precisely, why would they go to extra effort to add a feature none of their customers want, and which is trivially evaded by those who want to distribute copyrighted materials?
The obvious answer is to evade lawsuits for contributory copyright infringement. It's unclear to me that that's a sufficient explanation. As best I can tell (and I'm not a lawyer), they're under no legal obligation to take such actions. This is a product with "substantial noninfringing use", the standard the Supreme Court set in the Betamax case.
One possible answer is that pressure was applied by the content industry. Perhaps Western Digital (or, more accurately, its Mionet subsidiary) has received a threatening lawyer letter. If so, there's no hint of that on its news page. (Might they be on double secret probation?)
A more disturbing possibility is self-censorship. That is, they're afraid they might get sued, and defending against a groundless lawsuit is still very, very expensive, especially when your opponent has much deeper pockets than you do. This — self-censorship of behavior out of fear — is the real danger. The market will indeed deal with isolated incidents of stupidity, but only if consumers have a choice. If the content industry has created such a climate of fear that people and corporations won't exercise their lawful rights, we're all in trouble.