Android's YouTube Store lockout is textbook copyright extremism

My latest Guardian column, "Google's YouTube policy for Android users is copyright extremism," examines the theory of copyright behind Google's announcement that it would bar people who unlocked their phones from using the new YouTube video store. This is the latest example of a new kind of copyright emerging in the 21st century, "configuration-right," in which someone who makes a creative work gets a veto over how all the devices that can play or display that work must be configured. It's a novel — and dangerous — proposition, akin to record companies telling which furniture you were allowed to move into the same room as your stereo, and to require that you close your window when the record was playing, lest your neighbors get some tunes for free.

Which brings us back to where we started: unless you're running a very specific version of Google's software on your phone or tablet, you can't "rent" movies on YouTube. Google – the vendor – and the studios – the rights holders – are using copyright to control something much more profound than mere copying. In this version of copyright, making a movie gives you the right to specify what kind of device can play the movie back, and how that device must be configured.

This is as extreme as copyright gets, really. Book publishers have never told you which rooms you could read in, or what light bulbs you were allowed to use, or whether you could rebind the book or take it abroad with you. Broadcasters have never vetoed the design of radios.

The extension of copyright to "configuration right" is a profound shift in the history of technology and culture. There are lots of reasons to want to run a non-stock OS on your Android phone; some versions allow you to assert fine-grained privacy controls, others add features useful to people with disabilities; others make it simpler to use cheap/free voice-over-IP for long-distance calls. There are at least as many reasons to want to redecorate and reconfigure your phone, your computer or your tablet as there are reasons to rearrange your kitchen or redecorate your bedroom.

Google's YouTube policy for Android users is copyright extremism