When Sun trumpeted its 'open source DRM' last month, no one at first noticed an unusual name amongst the canned quotes. Lending his support to the rights enforcement technology was Free Software Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation board member, and Software Freedom Law Center director, Professor Lawrence Lessig. A name usually associated with the unrestricted exchange of digital media.
Debian activist and copyright campaigner Benjamin Mako Hill noticed, and thought this was odd. "The fact that the software is 'open source' is hardly good enough," he wrote, "if the purpose of the software is to take away users' freedom - in precisely the way that DRM does."
Was DRM less bad because it was 'open source'? Professor Lessig tells us that he should have reviewed the Sun Microsystems press release before it went out. It doesn't fully reflect his position, he says, and he's emphatic that this blessing doesn't constitute an endorsement.
"Rockstars and newspapers endorse things," he told us by email. "I don't."
Richard M Stallman, who founded the Free Software movement and devised the original GNU public license, diplomatically didn't dwell on the support Lessig gave Sun's DRM.
"Anyone can mis-speak," he said. "But I hope people can learn from this."
He warns that, if DRM is open source, it might actually be worse than proprietary DRM, and he issued a rallying cry for free software campaigners that DRM is incompatible with freedom.
(How 'open source' Sun's DRM really is questionable, says Mako, since it allows proprietary implementations - that's something Lessig may not have been aware of at the time of the Sun press release.)
What follows, then, is excerpted from interviews with all three over the past week. Unprompted, both Stallman and Lessig spent considerable time with us discussing the wider context. Take away the need for DRM, they both point out, and the discussion becomes moot. Both have differing views on how this can be achieved, but it merits an article in itself, so we'll follow up with a Part Two in the very near future.
Stallman on freedom
As he so often does, Stallman began by drawing a sharp distinction between "open source" and the free software movement. This is more than mere semantics, as becomes apparent when he turns to DRM, because it's a distinction that reflects very different philosophical and moral approaches to writing software.
"The values of the Free Software Movement are the freedom to cooperate, and the freedom to have control over your own life. You should be free to control the software in your computer, and you should be free to share it," he sums up.
"The weakness of the 'Open Source' approach, is that it has been designed as another way to talk about the issues, one that cites only practical values. It agrees with the conventional attitude that what matters about software is what job it does, and how much money it costs. That's exactly the same attitude Microsoft wants you to take."
"Both 'open source' and proprietary developers are saying that convenience matters - but we're saying freedom and community matter more. We're not saying convenience doesn't matter, but there's more than just having a reliable and powerful program."
"I'm willing to undergo the tremendous inconvenience to create a free program that's a replacement for a proprietary program. That's why we have the GNU/Linux system, because a lot of people were prepared to make practical sacrifices so we can have that freedom."
Now here's where this underpins the DRM discussion.
Stallman says that the if you accept the proposition that 'open source' is good because it results in more powerful and reliable software, this makes 'open source DRM' worse than proprietary DRM. As he explains -
"If you think that the important thing is for the software to be powerful and reliable, you might think that applying the OS development model to DRM software is a way to make DRM powerful and reliable," he explains.
"But as far as I'm concerned, that makes it worse - because it's job is restricting you. And if it restricts you reliably, that means you've been thoroughly shafted.