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My new Guardian column, It’s your duty to complain – that’s how companies improve, is a rebuttal to those who greet public complaints about businesses’ actions with, “Well, just don’t buy from them, then.”

This idea posits that your role in the market is to be a kind of ambulatory wallet, whose only options are to buy, or not to buy. But not only does complaining sometimes solve your problems, it also warns others away from bad decisions, helping better companies thrive.

Finally, some business conduct isn’t just bad, it’s wrong, whether that’s discrimination, or unfair trading practices, and in those cases, you not only have the right to choose to do business elsewhere, you also have the right to force that company to change that way it operates, and the people who’ve taken on that challenge have done us all a service, and are the reason that we’re not all dying in a fireball every time our cars get rear-ended.

Whenever a complaint comes up about electronic media – games, ebooks, music, movies – and the ways their publishers restrict playback on devices, the “don’t buy it then” squad starts telling you to take your business elsewhere.

Copyright is a deal between the people and rightsholders. Rightsholders get a copyright – an expansive, long-enduring right to control most copying, display, adaptation and performance – when they create something new and fix it in a tangible medium. All the rights not set out in copyright remain in the public’s hands. That means you can’t sell a book with a license agreement that says, “By buying this book whose copyright expires next week, you agree that you will behave as though the copyright expires in the year 2100.” You can’t say, “By buying this book, you agree to vote for Donald Trump,” or “You agree not to let black people or Jews or women read it.”

You – the person reading that book, playing that game, listening to that music – have rights over that work beyond the right to buy or not buy it. You are more than just your wallet.

You have the right to enjoy the media you buy, even when you travel abroad. You have the right to be private in your enjoyment of that media. You have the right to engage in every activity the law doesn’t prohibit.

When those rights are taken away, you have been wronged. You are still wronged, even when you stop buying from the company that wronged you – and that’s if you have the choice to find a new supplier; if it’s your ISP who’s doing the bad stuff, chances are there aren’t any better ISPs you can switch to. You have options, like contacting a government agency such as the Office of Fair Trading and the Federal Trade Commission, or consumer rights organisation like Which? in the UK and Consumers Union in the USA. You have the option of contacting a lawyer.

It’s your duty to complain – that’s how companies improve
[Cory Doctorow/The Guardian]

(Image: Pixabay, PD)