Companies who are control freaks

One of the major drivers behind innovation is openness. Through openness knowledge is shared, reused or build upon to create bigger and better things. And this openness is at risk. Companies – but also universities – are becoming control freaks trying desperately control the use of their knowledge, products and content. This is a serious risk for keeping pace with innovation and moving society as a whole forward. The examples are abundant: In this article I will highlight some of them.

One of the most visible examples is digital rights management (DRM). You will find it everywhere. It is part of every television sold, every copy of Microsoft Windows, ebooks and game consoles like the Playstation or Xbox.

Using DRM companies control the use of content. The user does not own the content anymore but buys a license or right to use it. The user may only use the content based on license bought. This seriously restricts the options the user has for the content. Without technical circumvention a user cannot for instance copy a DVD to their Ipod for viewing on the go.

Sometimes this leads to very odd situations – especially from the consumer point of view. A prime example is what happened with the ebook 1985 of George Orwell sold by Amazon. At some point it was determined that Amazon did not have the right to sell this ebook. Amazon promptly send out a recall command to all their Kindle devices which erased the ebook from these devices. Just imagine you were halfway through the book you thought you owned and then it suddenly disappears. Of course this led to some very disappointed customers and Amazon had to apologize publicly for their mistake. But it also showed clearly the problem with licensing content and not owning content.

In the past you could lend a book to someone, but this also not possible with ebooks. The companies selling the ebook restrict the copying of ebooks. This is a serious restriction for sharing knowledge. And overall ebooks are sold for the same price as regular books which you do own and can lend to a friend.

Another example are closed ecosystems around products like you see with Apple products or in the game console market. The barrier of entry to create an application (like a game) on a platform like Sony’s playstation or Microsoft’s Xbox is quite high due to high cost of their software development kits. It is just not that easy for a developer to create an application for these devices.

And although the openness of the Apple product line (mainly Ipods, Ipads and Iphones) is much higher than in the game console market developers still need to pass the nod of approval to be able to offer their software through Apple AppStore. The requirements to get your application approved are not very clear and applications are rejected for unclear reasons.

Companies create these closed ecosystems to control the use of their own products.

But industries grow based on openness. Standards and open platforms enable other companies (or organizations or individuals) to take part of the ecosystem. Perfect examples are GSM standard for mobile phones or MP3 for digital music. You can buy your music at one store and play it on different players. Without these open standards the industries would have grown much slower.