DRM key to Linux's consumer success?

Yes, RealNetworks exec argues at LinuxWorld. But do consumers really want tech like FairPlay, PlaysForSure?
Written by Ingrid Marson, Contributor

BOSTON--A RealNetworks executive has claimed that Linux risks being excluded from the consumer market if it does not add support for copyright protection technologies.

But the Free Software Foundation Europe countered this claim on Thursday, saying consumers have made it clear that they do not want digital rights management, or DRM, restricting their use of digital media.

Jeff Ayars, a vice president at RealNetworks, said in a talk at LinuxWorld here Tuesday that if Linux does not offer support for DRM, people will not be able to run restricted digital content on the operating system, which will damage its success in the consumer market.

"The consequences of Linux not supporting DRM would be that fixed-purpose consumer electronics and Windows PCs would be the sole entertainment platforms available," Ayars said. "Linux would be further relegated to use in servers and business computers, since it would not be providing the multimedia technologies demanded by consumers."

He pointed out that Microsoft Vista is implementing a number of digital rights technologies, such as Protected Media Path, Protected Video Path and Protected User Mode Audio. "I would like Linux to be able to do that as well," he said. The support must be included in the Linux operating system, as a DRM system would not be able to trust drivers that were separately installed, according to Ayars.

But Georg Greve, the president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, disagreed with Ayars' claim that Linux risks being excluded from the consumer market, arguing that users dislike DRM.

"The Sony rootkit case made it quite clear why DRM is not accepted by consumers and why there is no successful business case for DRM," he said in an e-mail. "Apple iTunes allows people to burn their tracks on regular CDs, which can then be re-encoded and file-shared easily--so is better described as 'digital inconvenience management' only. eMusic.com offers clean audio tracks without any restrictions. No DRM platform comes close to either of these in popularity."

"So fortunately, it is up to the consumer to decide what the consumer market wants. And its answer is clear: It does not want DRM!" he said. "The sooner we bury the foolish notion of putting each and every use of a computer under control of the media industry, the sooner we can start looking for real alternatives."

Although Ayars refused to discuss what he termed the "philosophical" objections to using DRM, he admitted that there were "potential" negative consequences of supporting DRM in Linux, such as the risk of innovation being stifled.

"There are limits on the innovation that is possible around protected media," Ayars said. "With protected content, you wouldn't be able to create a new business model like TiVo did with time-shifting television--it was able to do that because there was no protection on signal."

Although much of the open-source community is likely to object to the addition of DRM to Linux, commercial Linux vendors may be more willing.

"When I talk with Red Hat, Novell or Linspire--these distributions are in the business of creating software for consumers--they are interested in people who buy their products being able to (view DRM-protected multimedia)," Ayars said.

Linspire's chief technical officer, Tom Welch, agreed that his company would definitely consider DRM.

"Linspire has not added DRM into our (distribution) yet but would like to add it if we are given the opportunity, provided it is a DRM that is being used by consumer products (such as Apple's FairPlay or Microsoft's PlaysForSure). If someone comes out with an open-source DRM, we'd be behind it, but we need major content providers to support it as well," Welch said.

Novell said it is keen to support more media formats but did not mention support for DRM.

"We are looking forward to the time when Linux users will have access to media in all formats. We obviously support open media formats in our offerings now, and we're currently in discussions with vendors who control proprietary formats to include support for them, as well," said Greg Mancusi-Ungaro, Novell's director of Linux product marketing.

Red Hat was unable to provide comment at the time of writing.

Editorial standards