Microsoft finds bullet in foot; gun in own hand

by Guy Kewney | posted on 31 December 2002

Pocket PC user Dan Jackson has neatly exposed Microsoft's threadbare fiction that you "acquire a licence" to Windows - media and software - by producing software to allow users of old Windows CE pocket PDAs to read their e-books, without having to upgrade to PocketPC. Ah, I take it you didn't know you couldn't?

Guy Kewney

In the world according to Microsoft when you buy a CD or DVD, you aren't purchasing anything; rather, you're obtaining a licence which allows you to play it. What's on the CD may be music, video, software or literature. In the case of e-books, programmer Dan Jackson discovered that this licence expired arbitrarily, simply because he made "the wrong choice" of hand-held computer.

"My interest in this regard came about when I recently purchased, second hand, a Casio E-15 palm-sized PC," he writes on his own web site.

"This device, despite being greyscale-only and somewhat outdated, is perfectly adequate for most of the purposes for which I use it. However, it runs on an older version of Microsoft's pocket operating system, Windows CE 2.11. Having bought one or two ebooks in Microsoft Reader format for reading on my pocket-PC, I was somewhat dismayed to discover that I was unable to utilise my pocket-PC to access them. This is apparently because Microsoft only supports its reader software on palmtops running Pocket PC 2002."

In other words, the licence isn't for the e-book, but for an e-book on a particular machine.

In the old days, if you bought a vinyl LP record, it was your property; if it were to be stolen, the police would help you get it back, if they could. You could play it on your own turntable, or take it to a friend's house. If you broke it, you didn't own the music any more; you would have to buy a new one. Nobody pretended you'd acquired a licence; the LP was your property.

Under the logic of the new copy-protected world, the disk or disc becomes merely a transfer medium. You could acquire the data from a Web site, or from a disc, or from a hard drive on your network, or on a Zip drive; and then you're entitled to access it. The licence can even expire; under Windows Media Series 9, the data can become unplayable after one performance, or ten; or it can expire after a day or a week or a month or even a few seconds; once the licence has expired, you're the owner of nothing except some encrypted data.

So what happens if you actually play along?

Suppose you go to the shop where you buy your copyright materials - a record or film store, say - and agree to buy a licence for The Lord of the Rings DVD. You take home the data on a DVD, and when you get home, the disc falls into the possession of a puppy. Not to worry! - the data is irrelevant and can be acquired in a dozen ways; so you should be able to take the broken disc back to the shop, and get a replacement, right?

Not their problem. The technology they have allows them to protect the DVD (in theory). They don't have a solution to the problem of the fact that your expensive "licence" has become inoperable. It's just tough.

The same applies to Microsoft. It provides software which reads e-books in the STORY.LIT format - for the PocketPC 2002 hardware family. If you don't have one of those - tough. The fact that you've paid for the e-book isn't their problem.

Except, of course, it is their problem.

In the days when record companies attempted to insist that if you bought a CD, you weren't entitled to play it on your car tape cassette unit, it was agreed that copying the media onto your own tape cassette for your own use was fair. In Canada, it was even agreed that a special "copying fee" should be imposed as a surcharge on blank tapes - a proposal which is still being argued for in the US, and in parts of Europe.

Dan's intention is to take a DOS command line program which converts .LIT files into material which can be transferred to other hardware. "Having recently obtained the source code for Convert Lit, my current goal is integrating the features that the original author had intended, as well as adding more capabilities," he notes.

And his plan is to solve the problem generically: "I wish to provide an all-in-one solution for the recovery of data in the MS Reader .lit file format. If there is interest, I am also open to creating a .dll to make it possible for others to implement a LIT conversion utility from their ebook applications. This is important for DRM5 files, especially, as it will enable people who have bought books in this format to use it with their older pocket PCs. It will also enable sight impaired persons to translate from text to speech those e-books they would otherwise be unable to read."

No question in my mind: Microsoft will see this as an attempt to "crack" its copy protection. In a sense, you can see that it is. The problem is that most people will see it as an entirely fair thing to do.

The problem for Microsoft is that it has appointed itself the custodian - but it hasn't agreed to play the game fairly. It has locked certain works up, and appointed itself the guardian; but will only allow access to those who bribe Microsoft itself by buying Microsoft hardware.

It has a simple choice: make sure it supports its .LIT format on all possible reading devices, or face the hostility of the buying public. And, having made the conversion problem "someone else's problem" it can only blame itself when someone else actually does solve it.

Anybody who wants to help Dan with his project can mail him and anybody who wants a slightly off-colour giggle can note that his downloadable program - which is very easy to find! - is called CLIT.EXE and anybody who thinks that isn't off-colour enough can check Pocket PC Addict where they will discover that "Other Internet hackers have already captured this code and provided a Windows 9x front-end that illiminates the need to know and understand command-line functions."

But don't blame me for what this other code has been called, OK?

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