The battle between open source and DRM


I'm writing a larger essay on this topic, but I recently posted the following to Interesting People and it was requested to put it here. It relates to the theme of "light" DRM.

I used to wonder if you made a DRM system that was so well designed that only a serious pirate would notice it was there, if this might be a workable system.

But now I have come to realize that there's one very important community which a DRM system can't avoid harming, and that's the open source
community, who as a largely philanthropic effort build linux, the bsds and much of the software that runs the internet and is thus used by everybody.

One of the pillars of the open source community, written into several of its most common licences, is that the end user must be able to modify the software, both for their own use and to give away to others. Of course, most end-users don't recompile their tools, but a sizeable number do, and they provide innovations, fixes and improvements that get used by all the users.

There is a fundamental incompatability between this ability to modify and any DRM that has a software element to its enforcement. You simply can't have them both.

That leaves DRM where all the enforcement (ie. decryption and display/presentation) takes place within physically secured devices. This is not easy to do, and even if done, it bars the open source software from any useful features that might be thought up which require access to the media -- only what the hardware permits can be done.

The end result is to largely shut open source software out of the media playing arena, and thus, if you believe in the convergence of media playing devices and computing devices, out of the general purpose home computer arena.

To those who use the open source software, the trouble with this is obvious. But in fact, all must be concerned, as the open source software, aside from being one of the few competitors to forces like Microsoft, is also becoming a source of significant innovation. That old style, garage-based innovation, where a loner or small team develop something new on the cheap which changes the world. DRM systems can be architected to allow a Tivo, but they bar the "next Tivo" which is a loss to all.

So the conclusion is that, as suggested, you can't pull off the "make everybody happy" DRM. Instead, you get DRM which mostly sits as a barrier not to pirates or users, but to the small innovators of the world, and what a tragedy that would be.


The announcement that Apple will be moving to Intel-produced chips also bodes ill for anti-DRM hopes, as the Palladium will be the chip they move to. If you are not familiar with the DRM in Palladium:

On the one hand, I don't care what's inside the computer (not really an architecture bigot like some of my IT cohorts), but on the other hand I do care to see that it's not some b.s. DRM system. I've already paid for my digital media, thankyouverymuch. I'm not buying it again.

At the rate things are going, we'll either be buying high-end servers like POWER or SPARC, or nothing, if we are trying to avoid DRM. :-/ Either that or we will all be outlaws. Perhaps it's time to start our own country...

The Apple announcement is more troubling because it's been claimed that DRM will be used to restrict folks from running MacOS on non-Apple computers. If this is so, I wonder how Darwin can continue to be the basis for Apple's OS. Having recently switched to OS X, I wonder if I need to plan to switch away from it.

I agree about the conflict between DRM and open source. But what about a compromise? Suppose the player program presented the viewer/listener the choice of whether or not to contribute a certain sum to the artist. The choice would be presented every so often (maybe 10 minutes, or once per play of a music track), until the user answers "yes," and the money is sent to the artist. After that, the question would not be asked again. If the user answers "no," a short advertisement could be shown.

With a scheme like this, there would be no need (or desire) to stop copying or any other use of the content, so long as the dialog is shown. In this scheme the DRM would not seem onerous (to me). So then how about a "mostly free" software license that says you can modify and redistribute the code any way you like, as long as you pause the playback and present the user with the option of paying for the content at the prescribed interval, and show the advertising if he says no. I know this would not get RMS's seal of approval, but it seems a fair compromise to me to permit a system of free and open content distribution, with artists given a good chance of being rewarded for their efforts.

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