Sun's Schwartz has right DRM idea, but maybe not the power

This will be my 11th post in my ongoing campaign and blog series on InDRMpendence and DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) in just about as many business days (12 to be exact).

This will be my 11th post in my ongoing campaign and blog series on InDRMpendence and DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) in just about as many business days (12 to be exact).  In an effort to bring about change and alert as many people (see We the Sheeple) as possible to the reasons why they must stop co-conspiring to make the DRM problem worse than it already is (either directly through the purchase of DRMed content, or indirectly through apathy about a critical socio-political issue), my hope is to stay at or near this pace.  

The DRM problem is a two-dimensional one. On one vector lies the goals of DRM.  On the other lies the technology.  To the extent that DRM is designed to make sure that copyright holders can collect whatever fees they want (if they desire to do so), I do not object. Copyright holders are certainly entitled to charge what they want for their music and let the market decide, and if the content is good enough and the price is right, I'm happy to pay.  But, judging by reality (how DRM is being used), DRM's goal apparently doesn't stop there. Instead of managing my fair use rights to the content I'm paying for, it's restricting them.  Thus, the R in DRM is really for Restrictions, not Rights.  So, the goals of DRM need a global rethink (for example, do we really need it at all) and I'm not going to belabor that point any further in this blog entry. 

Secondary in my mind  (not by much) to the DRM goal vector is the technology vector. This is where Hollywood's need to protect its turf has turned into a gift from heaven for the technology companies that incessantly seek out market control points through the use of proprietary technologies.  To you, proprietary generally means one of two things.  Lack of compatibility or increased cost to get compatibility. Today, the different DRM technology makers are in a race to drive as much DRMed content  (DRMed with their different DRM technologies that is) into market as possible.  By doing so, they are securing the future of their playback technologies because you'll always need them to access your content.  In this context (driving DRMed content to market), Microsoft is the tortoise and Apple is the hare  The lion's share of the DRMed music  that's been driven into the market is saddled with Apple's FairPlay DRM technology and it looks like Steve Jobs and Company are way ahead of the game.  Meanwhile, while it may not have sold nearly as much DRMed content into the market, Microsoft is slowly and somewhat quietly setting itself up for a DRM penetration blitz that I think will shame the hare.  You're welcome to disagree.  Many people have.

More importantly, regardless of who wins, we lose.  When we addict ourselves to proprietary technologies,  we're setting ourselves up for another technology monoculture that deprives us of innovation and choice (not to mention the way it gives one or two companies far too much power to have their way with their competitors). If we must have DRM, then we should move to ameliorate the toll that proprietary DRM schemes will almost certainly take on our society (all forms of content -- not just music -- are at stake).  To do so requires that all parties involve agree to comply with an open, royalty-free, no patent strings attached standard.  Very few industry executives have talked this talk or walked this walk.  But, when I read what Sun president and COO Jonathan Schwartz said in his Aug 26 2005 blog entitled DReaM, the Open Media Commons and the Future of IP, I liked what I saw. Here's Schwartz making some key points more eloquently than I have:

  • Regarding the R in DRM going to far beyond "Rights" and morphing into "Restrictions" -DRM is useful, but not in the draconian or dictatorial forms that have been discussed. DRM, to us, is simply a security model for intellectual property. And just as accessing your bank account should be protected by a security layer, so should accessing your data - as just another form of intellectual property.
  • Regarding how a DRM monoculture can stifle innovation, foreclose on competition, and eliminate choice - I was with a large telecommunications customer recently, who told me how excited he was to be partnering with a movie studio to deliver first run movies on handsets - until his general counsel received notice from a patent authority claiming they had tripped over patents associated with their encoding and playback mechanisms. The licensing authority had asked for $1 per movie stream, or a percentage of their annual revenue. Which would effectively shutter the opportunity. In our view, the market wants the choice of not having to submit to such trolls and tollgates.  And therefore, we believe an effective DRM solution must be available to the world without royalty or patent risk. In order to ensure continued interoperability and freedom to reimplement, we also believe the solution should be available in open source form, under a files based license that in no way threatens to interfere with original ownership.
  • How a device monoculture leads to leads to channel control (of other peoples' businesses) - I was with the Chief Executive of a music company recently, who told me how thrilled he was to have a growing percentage of his revenues being derived from digital distribution. But there was one caveat - 95% of the digital distribution came through one vendor's product and service (guess which), the owner of which had let him know his royalty stream was being radically reduced, unilaterally, in a new contract. No negotiation. And therefore, we believe an effective DRM solution must be available to IP owners on all devices - not be hidebound to one.
  • On the right of copyright owners to charge for their content - IP owners should be in charge of how they monetize their IP. You have every right to choose the license under which you'll make your IP available. You have every right to monetize that asset as you see fit - and to control its distribution, if that's what you seek. I support the 4th amendment.

Of course, Schwartz & Co. at Sun have often found themselves on the short end of the monoculture stick more than once.  That's why he can speak so passionately about the subject while putting Sun's muscle into  programs like DReaM and the Open Media Commons (discussed in his blog).  And it's great to have someone at his level championing the least evil approach to something that is by its very nature, an evil issue (let's face it... if everyone was a Boy Scout on copyrighted content, we wouldn't be having this discussion). My concern is that Sun has a weaker hand on the DRM front (to disrupt the monoculture that we're racing towards) than it did say, on the single sign-on front where it played a role in derailing Microsoft's Passport before it turned into similar control mechanism (The potential to be that clearly existed. I'm not insinuating that Microsoft would have acted on it).  In some ways, DRM is a single sign on technology and from a market control standpoint, there are striking parallels between it and technologies like the old Passport to the extent that the technology paves the way for its owners to stretch their tentacles into the businesses of others. 

With Passport, very few people were deriving real value from its implementation.  The same cannot be said of today's primary DRM schemes.  Other than Sun's role with the telecommunications companies (eg: Java on their handsets) that represent an important distribution channel, I don't know that Sun has leverage it needs to upset the applecart.


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