Free Software Foundation: DRM fundamentally incompatible with FSF princples

Summary:News.com's Martin Lamonica reports: [Free Software Foundation general counsel Eben] Moglen said that DRM technology, which places limits on how users can play movies, music or other digital content, is "fundamentally incompatible" with the principles of the Free Software Foundation.

News.com's Martin Lamonica reports:

[Free Software Foundation general counsel Eben] Moglen said that DRM technology, which places limits on how users can play movies, music or other digital content, is "fundamentally incompatible" with the principles of the Free Software Foundation. Moglen and Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman are co-authors of the GPL version 3.

Unfortunately, this is actually only half the rotten truth.  As the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Brad Templeton taught me, DRM (digital restrictions management) is also technically incompatible with open source software (the likes of which the Free Software Foundation espouses).   The problem has to do with how DRM works.  Some where in the source code behind DRM-laden software like iTunes or Windows Media Player is an if-then-else statement that is an expression of the rules that the content cartel can live with.  It goes something like this:

If [the end user passes the DRM shakedown], then

   playback the content

Else

   deny access to the content

End If

The problem is that the content cartel must trust the DRM technology providers to check with them first before changing the rules and altering the source code to the point that users might be allowed to do something else once the "If" condition is satisfied.  For this reason, there can never be an "open" DRM standard that's available to open source developers.   That's because we all know (even the open source developers know) that open source developers will change the rules without checking with anybody.  For example, the source code behind an open source media client might say the following:

If [the end user passes the DRM shakedown], then

   Strip the content of its DRM and republish all of it
   on BitTorrent

Else

   Strip the content of its DRM and republish all of
   it on BitTorrent

End If

Lamonica's report also said:

On Monday, the Free Software Foundation published a draft of the GPL version 3, which is expected to be completed in about a year. The draft states that GPL software cannot use "digital restrictions" on copyrighted material unless users can control them.

It later mentions TiVo, which runs on embedded Linux and includes DRM technology.  So, to paint the complete picture, you have TiVo which is a company that's relying on a combination of open source software and proprietary DRM software to build a solution that allows the content cartel to sleep at night.  Under the new GPL, it appears as though TiVo -- as long as it wants to continue embedding Linux in its devices -- would be prevented from including DRM technology as well. 

What is meant by the exception clause "unless users can control them" (them = digital restrictions), I don't know (feel free to chime in if you do).  I like the fact that the FSF is using the words "digital" and "restriction" for the "D" and the "R" in "DRM" (as I do here in this blog).  But, at a base level, giving users control of the digital restrictions basically defeats the idea of having them in the first place.  Unless there's a more subjective explanation that spells out what exactly is meant by "user control of digital restrictions."  Anybody?

Now, what to do if you're TiVo or some other company that's been marrying open source to DRM (in proprietary fashion)? Simple.  Go to Microsoft for its DRM since Apple is stingy when it comes to licensing FairPlay.  Actually, if TiVo knocked on Apple's door, IApple might pay attention.  After all, a TiVo-iPod love connection would be like a dream come true for TiVo and, theoretically, Apple should love the idea of getting into everyone's settop boxes (TiVo has already been down this path with Microsoft for TiVo-to-Go).  But, then again, maybe not since Apple wants its own gear to be the settop box.  OK, better idea.  Apple should go out and acquire TiVo.  Or maybe Microsoft should do it first.   You get the picture.  If Linux gets nosed out of all those digital video recorders (DVRs), the balance of power in the DRM ecosystem could end up swinging dramatically in some direction.  Which? I have no idea.

Topics: Open Source

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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