Intel's latest business-model takes a page out of Hollywood's playbook: they're selling processors that have had some of their capabilities crippled (some of the cache and the hyperthreading support are switched off). For $50, they'll sell you a code that will unlock these capabilities. Conceptually, this is similar to the DRM notion that I can sell you a movie that you can watch on one screen for $5 today, and if you want to unlock your receiver's wireless output so you can watch it upstairs, it'll be another $5.
I remember the first time someone from the studios put this position to me. It was a rep from the MPAA at a DRM standards meeting, and that was just the example he used. He said: "When you buy a movie to watch in your living room, we're only selling you the right to see it in your living room. Sending the same show upstairs to watch in your bedroom has value, and if it has value, we should be able to charge money for it."
This idea, which Siva Vaidhyanathan calls "If value, then right," sounds reasonable on its face. But it's a principle that flies in the face of the entire human history of innovation. By this reasoning, the company that makes big tins of juice should be able to charge you extra for the right to use the empty cans to store lugnuts; the company that makes your living room TV should be able to charge more when you retire it to the cottage; the company that makes your coat-hanger should be able to charge more when you unbend it to fish something out from under the dryer.
Moreover, it's an idea that is fundamentally anti-private-property. Under the "If value, then right" theory, you don't own anything you buy. You are a mere licensor, entitled to extract only the value that your vendor has deigned to provide you with. The matchbook is to light birthday candles, not to fix a wobbly table. The toilet roll is to hold the paper, not to use in a craft project. "If value, then right," is a business model that relies on all the innovation taking place in large corporate labs, with none of it happening at the lab in your kitchen, or in your skull. It's a business model that says only companies can have the absolute right of property, and the rest of us are mere tenants.
If there's one industry where "If value, then right," is a dead letter, it's computing. The first processors Intel ever sold went into PCs did practically nothing. It was only the addition of unlicensed, unauthorized, independent third-party innovation -- software, peripherals, networks -- that made them valuable enough to send more business Intel's way.
Intel is a direct beneficiary of our property rights in our computers: the company's best customers are hobbyists who buy Intel processors directly in order to upgrade their PCs. What if Dell asserted "If value, then right," and told its customers that they had only purchased the right to run their PCs as-is, an if they wanted a faster processor, they'd have to pay Dell to unlock this latent value?
One thing remains to be seen: will Intel try to sue people who figure out how to unlock their processors without paying Intel? Under the more exotic interpretations of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, showing your neighbor how to unlock her Intel processor is a copyright violation (though a recent court decision went the other way).
Just this week, Intel's spokesman sang the praises of the DMCA's anti-circumvention rules and promised to use them to club down its competitors. Let's hope that this anti-property mania doesn't extend to attempts at shutting down websites that distribute software that let us unlock our own processors.
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