Is DReAM A Nightmare?

Reading Cory Doctorow's article discussing the junction of DRM1 and Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS) and then Andrew Orlowski's interviews in The Register over the weekend, I have to say that I agree with much of what Cory has to say2 concerning Sun's Project DReAM.

In my view, the project has unfortunately conflated two different debates. By invoking F/OSS it automatically brings with it the worldview that implies. In the dialectic of that world, software is considered to either promote liberty or to promote monopoly, with F/OSS always promoting liberty. By associating DRM (which can never promote liberty) and F/OSS (which always does), anyone is guaranteed to come across as initially clueless, it is a semantic inevitability. This is the justified attack that Cory makes and he has my respect and broad agreement in making the point.

However the experimental project is licensed3, it doesn't change the fact that Sun groks software freedom. We've realised that the business of software doesn't depend on keeping the source code secret - in the networked era that simply limits the opportunities. Freeing the source code and opening up development to communities is becoming an instinct - one the DReAM team has rightly followed.

Is There A Place for Pragmatism?

But to my eyes, Project DReAM is not an open source play. I can't help believe that DRM will be a fact of life for at least the next five years. My view is that it's a disaster for modern culture, not least because it destroys "fair use" rights by quantising discretion. But, like death and taxes, it seems inescapable. So given we have to head into this void, the DReAM approach is to try to create a system that is the least worst option.

The truth remains that as people create IPTV systems and music distribution systems and more, they will use DRM, even if it is bad for the customer. It seems churlish to let the stuff Big Media is churning out place a generation of culture out of the reach of the ordinary citizen - to not play is to guarantee that, if Tim is wrong and this stuff takes hold, it's all the domain of the bad guys. As comes across from David Berlind's interview with Tom Jacobs, surely there is room for technology experimentation to see if it's possible to find a way to defend fair use in a world hell-bent on eliminating it? That seems to be the point Lawrence Lessig was making:

We should have laws that encouraged a DRM-free world. We should demonstrate practices that make compelling a DRM-free world. All of that should, I thought, be clear. But just as one can hate the Sonny Bono Act, but think, if there’s a Sonny Bono Act, there should also be a Public Domain Enhancement Act, so too can one hate DRM, but think that if there’s DRM, it should be at least as Sun is saying it should be.

I agree with Lessig (and Richard Stallman). Within that frame, I've been happy to support the (definitely incomplete) experimentation that Project DReAM represents - flat refusal to explore the space is unsatisfyingly dogmatic. I'll carry on watching, with an open mind, but for now I'm mostly with Cory.

  1. Digital Restrictions Management is the term I prefer to expand this acronym as the technology is about using one's "rights" to restrict others access.
  2. Mind you, some might regard this as special pleading in a context that's had a problem coming for ages. In the F/OSS communities we've spent way too long focussing on licenses and legalism and not nearly enough time considering the governance of communities or the nature of "content". This is being addressed in GPL v3 but until that's current, complete with a DRM prohibition, I see no reason why any field of endeavour can't be F/OSS licensed within the current rules and outlooks. This isn't an "older outlook", Cory, this is what happens when F/OSS is only defined in times of licenses. But I agree we as a community need to address it.
  3. Frankly, I would rather have Project DReAM under a Free software license (as it is) than a proprietary license.

And as you know, my views hew close to Mr. Doctorow's, as well. But there's no hiding from the reality that important deployments are occurring, today, that mandate DRM - and no matter how much I may philosophically agree with even Mr. Stallman on the matter, absent an alternative, what's deployed will be far more insidious than what DReAM presents. Certainly less developer accessible. So can DRM promote freedom? No. But Sun can promote freedom of choice, while we work toward a world in which DRM, as defined today, is no longer relevant.

Posted by Jonathan Schwartz on April 17, 2006 at 02:36 AM PDT #

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