Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Truly Trivial: What secret F-U to the Beatles is hidden in the Mac OS?

wallpaper - beatles & apple
It's part of the accepted wisdom of the technology community that Apple Computer cofounder Steve Jobs is a paranoid, narcissistic jerk who has channeled his character flaws into both a cult of personality and a world-changing consumer-tech empire. I mean, you've got to be something of a high-profile jackass for The Simpsons to devote and entire episode B-plot to punking you out, and since company culture often reflects the personality of its executive leadership, it's little wonder that Apple has a long and glorious history of getting sued by unlikely people. (Carl Sagan? Seriously?)

Still, it takes a special man and a special company to wage a three-decades-long trademark war with The Beatles. The core of this dispute (pun intended) is that the holding company for most of The Beatles' intellectual property is Apple Corps, which felt that Jobs' and Steve Wozniak's fledgling little tech concern was treading on their trademark turf. This dispute was settled in 1981 when Apple Computer paid Apple Corps $80,000 and promised not to enter the music business. So long as there was a clear separation between which company made tech and which company made (or, rather, licensed) music, everything was cool.

Then, in 1986, Apple started integrating MIDI synthesizer chips into their computers, a trend that culminated in the Apple IIGS line of desktops. To Apple Corps thinking, this was a breach of the settlement, so the Beatles IP-holder sued Apple Computer again. And won. And killed the IIGS line, along with any direct hardware integration of synthesizer or music-mixing tech into Apple computers.

Now, as they say, it was on.

Apple resented the Beatles for nixing its foray into sound tech, and Apple Corps was watching Apple Computer like a hawk for any sign that Steve Jobs' company was treading anywhere near music industry territory. It got so bad inside Apple Computer that the company's legal department had to sign off on any system sounds that may or may not be interpreted as "excessively musical."

Thus it came to be that in 1991 former Apple sound designer Jim Reekes created a little file that has been in every Mac OS since System 7 -- one intended in part as a subtle, secret kiss-off to Apple Corps and their legal representatives for all the inconvenience their litigious oversight caused Apple Computer developers.

So, what secret F-U to the Beatles (or, at least, their lawyers) has been hidden in the Mac OS for almost 20 years?

The answer is the sosumi system chime, which -- when you think about -- is a name that sounds an awful lot like "so sue me." (Here's what the actual sosumi file sounds like. If you've ever powered on a Mac, this will seem very familiar.) Back in 1990, Apple Computer's legal department was so terrified of an Apple Corps lawsuit that it had previously instructed the aforementioned Jim Reekes to rename a component of (and thus massively rewrite) the sound manager API from noteCMD to frequencyCMD so as not to imply any musical application -- literally an Orwellian rewrite of computer code. Thus, when Apple legal followed up to tell him he couldn't have a sound file called chime, Reekes was primed for some sarcastic vengeance.

His first instinct was to call the file Let It Beep as a dig at the Fab Four's classic "Let It Be." Unfortunately, even the most obtuse company lawyer would probably note the sarcasm evident in such a file name, so Reekes went to plan B -- a snarky homophone. He came up with the sosumi filename and claimed it was a meaningless Japanese term, which got it past all the legal eagles. Thus, the chime file snuck its way into Mac System 7, and it's been carried over into every subsequent Macintosh operating system since, including Snow Leopard.

Now, this is hilarious and all, but no doubt some of you are asking how it is that Apple Computer was banned from the music business but somehow started printing billions of dollars in profit thanks to iPods and iTunes. Simple: Apple Computer offered to buy off Apple Corps for $1 million, and the Beatles IP-holder refused. So Apple went and made iTunes and iPods anyway, and promptly got sued by Apple Corps.

Only this time, Apple Computer won.

Basically, a British judge ruled that Apple Computer wasn't printing any physical music media with Beatles content or Apple Corps logos on it, so there was not breach of settlement. Computer files don't count. Defeated, Apple Corps has since accepted a full buyout of its own trademarks by Apple computer, which Apple Computer now licenses back to Apple Corps. In the end, Steve Jobs actually got the Beatles estate to pay him to use a logo they had first. And they wonder how it is that the iPod is kicking the Zune's ass in the marketplace.

In related news, The Beatles music catalogue is now available on Rock Band, but still not on iTunes. We'll see how long it takes Darth Jobs to win on that front, too.

After years of writing trivia columns I've come to embrace the fact that almost everyone reading these things is smarter than me, which is why you always seem to find omissions, mischaracterizations, and outright screw-ups in my work. And like all great businessmen, I intend to profit from my own ignorance and sloth by inviting you, the reader, to call me out on these entertaining little glitches in each Truly Trivial column. The responder with the smartest, best-sourced, and/or most amusing gotcha will earn a place of honor in the subsequent column by having his/her/its comment highlighted next week in this space, along with an excuse, rebuttal or (more likely) half-hearted mea culpa from me. Yes, that is your sense of self-importance rising to the bait. Don't fight it. I dare you.

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