Saturday, March 29, 2008

This is why you should prefer Open Source software

As reported on SlashDot and elsewhere, Creative Labs has issued a C&D (cease and desist) order against a user, "Daniel_K", who modified the Creative drivers to work under Vista. (I kind of like Reddit's take on it: "Creative launches "Don't Buy Our Sound Cards" campaign; puts legal screws to 3rd party Vista driver modder")

Just so you get it in context, here is the post on Creative's website. I'm going to break it down now with some commentary:
We are aware that you have been assisting owners of our Creative sound cards for some time now, by providing unofficial driver packages for Vista that deliver more of the original functionality that was found in the equivalent XP packages for those sound cards.
In other words, they concede that the functionality was originally intended to be included with the cards, that the cards are physically capable of the functionality, and that Creative originally shipped drivers that provided the functionality.
In principle we don't have a problem with you helping users in this way, so long as they understand that any driver packages you supply are not supported by Creative. Where we do have a problem is when technology and IP owned by Creative or other companies that Creative has licensed from, are made to run on other products for which they are not intended.
In other words, we say that we don't have a problem with what you're doing, even though it's obvious that we're lying. We obviously do mind. Creative do not intend for these cards to work with Vista. That is even though the cards are advertised as being ready for Vista. Obviously Creative intend for you to purchase a card based on promises that they have no intention of keeping. You might interpret that as lying, too (that's my interpretation); or perhaps fraud. If you're very generous, the best you can say is that it's "parsing the truth", in that the hardware is Vista capable, while the drivers are not. That's an overly generous interpretation, in my opinion. Several users claim to have lodged complaints with their states' attorneys general as a result. I don't think a class action lawsuit is far behind.
We took action to remove your thread because, like you, Creative and its technology partners think it is only fair to be compensated for goods and services. The difference in this case is that we own the rights to the materials that you are distributing. By enabling our technology and IP to run on sound cards for which it was not originally offered or intended, you are in effect, stealing our goods. When you solicit donations for providing packages like this, you are profiting from something that you do not own.
Ah, here it is. Daniel_K asked for voluntary donations to support his work. On the other hand, Creative saw the opportunity to charge users $10 a pop for drivers to enable the cards to work with Vista. Never mind that the "goods" in question have already been sold to the customers. Never mind that the customers expected the cards to work, and that Creative (deliberately, if we are to believe their statement above) crippled the product. Never mind that a payment to Creative under these terms amounts to extortion (in my opinion, that's what it is when you sell hardware and hold the drivers hostage for future payment), whereas a payment to Daniel_K is a voluntary display of gratitude. The folks at Creative don't care about any of that.

To be fair, Daniel_K should not have asked for donations. Now, Creative could have directed him not to accept donations, but that's not what they are concerned about, really. They don't even want the free mod out there. Here's why:
If we choose to develop and provide host-based processing features with certain sound cards and not others, that is a business decision that only we have the right to make.
And if it turns out to be a stupid business decision that costs them the bulk of their customers, then they still have the right to make it... just as their customers have the right to turn up their noses at Creative's fetid support and give their patronage to Creative's competitors instead.
Although you say you have discontinued your practice of distributing unauthorized software packages for Creative sound cards we have seen evidence of them elsewhere along with donation requests from you. We also note in a recent post of yours on these forums, that you appear to be contemplating the release of further packages.
What Mr. O'Shaughnessy is noticing here is the "genie out of the bottle" nature of the Internet. Once something is available it's incredibly hard to make it unavailable again. It will pop up on other websites. It will be available via BitTorrent, on Usenet groups, in IRC, in chatrooms via peer-to-peer file transfer. It's both ephemeral and persistent. You may as well try to gather smoke in a net. Daniel_K has clearly expressed his desire to comply. He can't speak for anyone else distributing the modified drivers, though. As for contemplating future releases... well sure, until now.
To be clear, we are asking you to respect our legal rights in this matter and cease all further unauthorized distribution of our technology and IP. In addition we request that you observe our forum rules and respect our right to enforce those rules. If you are in any doubt as to what we would consider unacceptable then please request clarification through one of our forum moderators before posting.
And Daniel_K has done so.
Phil O'Shaughnessy
VP Corporate Communications
Creative Labs Inc.

I label Mr. O'Shaughnessy "incompetent" because as "VP Corporate Communications" he had to have known what was coming next. The story was slashdotted. It was picked up by Reddit and Digg and spread widely. The responses on Creative's forums have been almost universally negative toward Creative. The vast majority of these responses are that these users will never buy another Creative product. This extends not only to sound cards, but to webcams, speakers, MP3 players, and other products. Anyone with real experience with corporate communications more sophisticated than smoke signals could and would have predicted all of this.

Let's keep in mind what Mr. O'Shaughnessy has highlighted. Users buy a Creative sound card having been told that it's ready for Vista. They take it home and find that it is not, in fact, fully supported under Vista. Creative states (via Mr. O'Shaughnessy) that is is not intended to work under Vista. They know how to do it, but won't... not without additional payments from the people who have already bought the hardware, or more likely after forcing them to buy new hardware, given the statement: "If we choose to develop and provide host-based processing features with certain sound cards and not others..." And now, rather than hire the talent that has made the product work for free (voluntary contributions are voluntary, after all), Creative, via Mr. O'Shaughnessy, has issued a C&D. This goes beyond the issue at hand. Daniel_K is now demoralized to the extent of not working on Audigy support, either.

Mr. O'Shaughnessy has also highlighted the danger of choosing a Creative product in the Windows environment. This is the valuable take-home message that we wouldn't have gotten except directly from Creative. You see, Windows users typically subscribe to automated updates. If a Creative sound driver is only intended to work under Vista, is it intended to work under a subsequent Service Pack? We simply don't know. We do know that it's not intended to operate after an OS upgrade. Might we wake up one morning and discover that the card we bought is no longer intended to work? We can't confidently ask Creative for clarification, either, because as I think we have to conclude from the statement issued, at least some of their corporate communications are deliberate lies. We just don't know which statements are truthful; so we're better off with another, more credible, vendor.

If Mr. O'Shaughnessy is simply following corporate directions, it's unfortunate that his name is associated with the post, as the decision was incompetent whatever the source. And his name will make him the convenient scapegoat when Creative realizes the monumental stupidity of this move and does the inevitable backtracking... and sacks Phil O'Shaughnessy. It's unlikely that he'll get another job in corporate communications given such a stupendous public display of ineptitude.

I join with the rest of the commenters in no longer recommending Creative products. I think it's very clear that they do not have the interests of their customers at heart. And this is not a problem with the soundcards, it's a problem -- a major problem -- with the company itself. Therefore I would no longer recommend any Creative product of any sort whatsoever.

The management of Creative have forgotten that they are a hardware company. Many other hardware companies have not, and they provide open source drivers for their products. Many others provide specifications to allow third parties to develop open source drivers for them. This is how many of the Linux drivers are created. When Open Source is used, you don't have to worry about whether an upgrade to the Operating System will break, not just your drivers, but your legal ability to obtain new drivers. With Open Source, there are no questions about the credibility of "can't" vs. "won't" claims. Open Source protects your hardware investment. It is the only sure way to do that.

Creative, as a company, has contracted a disease. March 28, 2008 marks the date of its onset. If left untreated, Creative will die a slow and painful death. It's still possible for the company to act quickly to save iself. All that's required are three easy steps:
  1. Fire Phil O'Shaughnessy. It would suck for Phil, sure, but it's necessary, since his name on the post gives them their only plausible scapegoat.
  2. Rescind the dumb-assed business decision to which Phil refers. Creative's former customers hate them for it. Their future customers don't exist because of it.
  3. Open Source the drivers. These drivers are useless without hardware, and if you've bought the hardware you're entitled to the drivers. It's as simple as that. This is the only way to ensure them that their investment is protected. You don't have to hire Daniel_K as some have suggested... open-sourcing the drivers makes this unnecessary, and is even preferable.
That is the only way Creative will regain credibility with their customers, and regain the marketshare that they are even now beginning to lose. I don't particularly expect them to believe that, as I don't particularly see any brilliant decisions coming from their direction. Should they choose another route, watch this space for their epitaph.