Wednesday May 06, 2009

☞ Innovation vs Corporate Effects

Friday Mar 07, 2008

Responding to the EU on DRM


In response to a request from the European Union concerning DRM and interoperability, Sun has submitted a lengthy written response. Preparing for and reviewing the response with colleagues took me back to my earlier article, DRM and the Death of a Culture. My tendency is always to look for a guiding principle rather than to seek a set of rules, and in this case it's about quantization of discretion. Here's what I wrote:

People talk of "fair use" but what they actually mean is that we all depend on the exercise of judgment in every decision. Near the "bulls-eye" of copyright we're all clear what is what, but as Lessig eloquently explains in Free Culture, in the outer circles we have to make case-by-case judgments about what usage is fair and what usage is abuse. When a technologist embodies their or their employer's view of what's fair into a technology-enforced restriction, any potential for the exercise of discretion is turned from a scale to a step and freedom is quantized.

It strikes me that the inherent quantization of rights is what makes DRM at best undesirable and at worst a guarantee of cultural Alzheimer's. I was thus delighted when a very senior Sun executive insisted that the position paper include the following paragraph:

Before we discuss interoperability in detail, we would like to emphasize this last point. Sun believes that DRM should be a solution only when necessary. DRM should never restrict the user's ability to utilize the content in legally-permissible ways. With this in mind, any DRM system must be open, fully interoperable, and free from hidden IP licensing burdens that effectively re-close the system economically. Indeed, in the spirit of the company that supports, Sun believes that the Commission's stance should enable it to be possible to create a free version of any DRM system used in the EU!

Of course, I am personally among those who believe it is never necessary to apply Digital Restrictions to content, but I'm very pleased that Sun is taking a position that DRM should not be assumed to be automatically a part of the entertainment business.

Tuesday Dec 11, 2007

About Sun's Million Dollar Grants for FOSS

Tiger in Bannerghatta

I just left India after speaking at FOSS.IN where I announced details of the Sun Open Source Community Innovation Awards in the context of a talk [20Mb PDF] about the challenges the Free/open source community-of-communities faces from success and growth. There's no question that India is a 'waking tiger'. The energy and enthusiasm I have found here has been without peer on my travels - apart, perhaps, from that of Brazil.

I have been considering with interest the reaction to my posting last week foreshadowing the awards. The awards were widely applauded, although as I'd expected there was also no shortage of people wanting to attack the program. I feel that some of the adverse reactions illustrate only the biases of their authors, and others were the result of of incomplete information. So I'd like to clarify a few points.

Programme Structure

The press release for the Open Source Community Innovation Awards uses the word "prize". As anyone that has tried to construct a similar program will know that to pay grants in this manner, laws surrounding prize-bearing competitions in the USA and elsewhere may be applicable. We've actually made no detailed decisions about how the $1 million US fund will be distributed beyond believing it will be divided equally between the communities.

Instead, the six communities involved will each devise schemes that fit their members and bring the proposals to us, for us to knock them into a shape that complies with the laws in the places the communities want to address. We are wanting to recognise and reward innovation, which we fully expect to come mainly from existing community members including the many already employed to work on software (though not Sun employees since Sun is the sponsor of the awards). It's about sharing the wealth.

Yes, this may incent some people to join communities, but frankly I'm well aware that developers are motivated more by their own goals with the software than by this sort of award. And I'm therefore astonished to come across the notion that Sun is looking to attract "cheap labour" with these awards. In my opinion, people that subscribe to that kind of view of open source fundamentally don't understand what community development is all about - they're either confused, or trying to confuse somebody else, to borrow a phrase.

I hope that the communities will devise a variety of programmes that include "innovator of the year"-type awards, "feature bounty" schemes, "internship"-style project sponsorship and other styles. The awards will be annual and if they work out well I hope we'll be able to expand their reach. For the first year, we've picked a small group of communities that Sun knows well since the legal and administrative details turn out to be pretty complicated. However, by their very nature, open source communities are networks of interests. OpenSolaris, for example, includes work in a range of communities including GNOME,, Mozilla and many others. The 2008/9 scheme will learn from the experience of the 2007/8 scheme and hopefully be even better - we all have to start somewhere!

Global Reach

The communities are welcome - encouraged - to apply the fund globally. The fact I announced the scheme in India doesn't imply it's targeted only there. However, I have personally seen that places like India, China, Brazil and Malaysia (which I also visited on this trip) have an enthusiasm and energy about FOSS that is raw and fresh, and I fully expect so see the people of this region well represented on the list of beneficiaries next year.

The next step will be for the communities involved to form proposals for their individual use of the $175k US or so they will be distributing. If you're a member of one of those communities, expect to see details of how this will be done coming from your leaders soon. I'm expecting to be able to join them in announcing the schemes early next year. If you've other questions, please ask in the comments and I'll try to answer them.

This scheme has proved surprisingly challenging to put together, and only goes so far in rewarding FOSS developers. I still think the best way to do that is to hire them, and indeed Sun does that to the tune of more than $200m US each year. But this scheme (and the others like it) is a useful addition and I hope the innovative features that result from it will greatly enrich the world of Free software and the open source communities that develop it.

Update Jan 2008: Details of the individual programmes are now available.


Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.


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