Thursday, February 3, 2011

Where Digital Downloads, Automatic Updates, and Artistic Vision Collide

I got a note in my inbox from Amazon the other day - apparently, a song I'd downloaded recently (one of the ones from the Decemberists' so-so The King is Dead) had a new version available that "more accurately represent[ed] the artist's vision" and gave me a code I could use to re-download the song for free.

I'd never gotten one of these emails before, but it got me thinking about some of the fundamental differences between purchasing a physical product and buying a digital version of the same thing. It's sort of interesting that an artist can make a change to a song and offer it to their fans free of charge - in a best-case scenario, it can make a normally static piece of art a more organic, living thing.

The thing of it is, the best-case scenario is rarely the most realistic scenario. It's fine to be given the opportunity to download a different version of a song for free, but what happens if this sort of thing becomes compulsory?

Let's use some examples from the world of computer software and video games, which tend to be on the cutting edge of this sort of thing: Some programs and digital distribution systems use an update mechanism where the latest patches and updates come down to your computer automatically - in this particular case, I'm thinking about Valve's Steam service, which keeps the Steam program itself and all games downloaded through Steam updated automatically without user intervention, and Google Chrome, which uses the aggressive Google Updater to do the same thing with browser updates.

In these cases, updates and patches are usually benign - they're either fixing bugs or adding features. They can even add new content in the form of map packs or gameplay modes - think about Valve's Team Fortress 2, which has been updated so extensively over the last three years that it's a completely different game than it was when it was released.

The dangerous thing about these automatic, convenient, seamless updates is that they can taketh away just as readily as they can giveth. A song might be removed due to rights issues. Some dialog may be deemed offensive and changed or removed.

We're still talking about pretty benign stuff at this point, but it gets worse. Take Chrome as a case in point - an upcoming update is going to remove support for a major video codec without the user's consent because Google deems it best. Sony infamously removed users' ability to install a Linux operating system to their Playstations 3. Owners of Amazon's Kindle picked up their devices one day to find that copies of George Orwell's seminal books, Animal Farm and 1984, had disappeared from their devices - this was due to rights issues rather than censorship and customers were refunded, but it was still done without the consent of the users.

Usually, laws and the desire of companies to, you know, draw customers keeps this sort of thing from happening on an especially wide scale - there are often protections keeping companies from removing major features from products after the fact or deleting content from devices. For example, even apps pulled from Apple's App Store are not removed from devices on which they've already been installed.

Things get stickier when it comes to creative output, though - it'd be awful hard to prove in court that a change to a movie or book or song made it quantifiably lesser than it was beforehand, no matter how many fans declare it so.

What if you bought the original Star Wars trilogy as a digital download, and had to put up with free "updates" every time George Lucas wanted to tack on another computer-generated dinosaur or add another line of flat, insipid dialogue? What if I purchased a digital copy of The King's Speech, and later I got an update that turned it into the pointless, stupid version without any of the polite British cussing? These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night.

With my old-fashioned physical media, and even with digital downloads that I buy once, download, and manage myself, I'm given the option of keeping the version I like best if I so choose. The new version of the Decemberists song that inspired this post tacks some thirty seconds of barely-audible wankery to the end of the original track, probably in an attempt to fulfill some obligatory quirkiness quota - I think I'll keep the original, thanks.

What happens if, as digital distribution and video streaming become more prevalent, the artist foists his or her or their updated "vision" upon me instead of giving me the ability to choose?

This raises some bigger questions that I don't have the means to answer and of which, frankly, the Decemberists song in question is not really worthy: what is the role of the audience in art? Is it all about the artist's vision or intent, or do I get to have some say in what I prefer? Ultimately, how important is my interpretation of the artist's intent?

The Star Wars DVDs I bought were the Special Edition versions that included the original versions on a second disc, and I've always chosen to watch the standard editions in spite of the lesser transfer and the lack of anamorphic widescreen. That is the way I roll! And I hope that we don't have to give stuff like that up entirely for the convenience of digital distribution systems.