How Sun's "open DRM" dooms them and all they touch

David Berlind has written about Sun's "Open DReaM" crippleware project, a DRM that pretends to be "open source" and an "open platform" in a cynical bid to curry favor with copyfighters and studios. The gimmick is that Sun's technology has to be run as signed code on trusted computing hardware, which means that while you can see the code, you can't change it, improve it, or build on it.

Once you have code you can't modify on hardware you can't access, "open source" can't be meaningfully used to describe a project. The key to free and open source software is the right of users to understand, modify, and distribute their changes to the tools they use -- to continue a tradition as old as the Enlightenment and as fundamental as the scientific method.

Sun's project doesn't subvert DRM, it subverts open source. It complies -- barely -- with the letter of older OSS definitions, while gutting their spirit. It's a car with the hood welded shut, with an "open" engine underneath the welding-seam.

This is a betrayal of the OSS community by Sun, which should know better. There is no market for Open Dream. No music listener woke up this morning wishing for a way to do less with her music. If Sun wants to compete with the Microsoft-controlled Open Mobile Alliance (which this project is really all about), then they should deploy set-top home Java servers (Sun, after all, is in the Java business and the server business, not the crippleware business) that grab music and video off the net, air and through the analog hole on your home theater, organize it, sort it, transcode it, and load it onto your laptop and phone -- and that use the paid mobile data networks run by the carriers (3G, EVDO, GPRS) to stay in synch.

This is a business-model that plays to Sun's strengths, that delivers value to carriers and handset vendors, and that doesn't set Sun on a doomed path to finding a way to deploy a  technology of sufficient brokenness to court Hollywood.

Stipulate that Sun will be able to get an entertainment company or two to sign up to use its crippleware. Then it gets a bunch of licensors of its technology -- companies that are willing to subject themselves to Sun's terms -- opt in and start producing crippleware products that Hollywood will put some content on.

What happens when Hollywood demands more restrictions than Open Dream presently delivers, and threatens to withdraw its content? Will Sun stick to its guns and cost its licensors their businesses by refusing to tighten the screws?

Apple may have a monopoly on supplying players for iTunes music, but at least it isn't beholden to any other company when it comes time to negotiate with the labels on the degree to which iTunes is crippled. I mean, Edgar Bronfman, Sr, managed to get the Swiss banks to give back all that Nazi gold, while Edgar Bronfman, Jr can't even get Steve Jobs to charge $1.50 for a Warners MP3.

There is no positive outcome for this. At best, it will be another costly failure for an IT company that can't afford many more of these. At worst, it will sow confusion about what "open" means (much like Microsoft's "Shared Source" initiative was meant to do See update below) and lead vendors and their customers into a trap that gives Hollywood leverage to montonically ratchet restrictions ever-tighter.


Update: At the urging of Bill Hilf, I re-visited the Microsoft "Shared Source" initiative mentioned above, which I hadn't looked closely at since its inception some years ago, when it primarily was a means of permitting Microsoft software vendors to look at, but not make new works from, or disclose Microsoft, code.

Today, I'm happy to report that the Shared Source initiative has adopted several licenses, including some that are short, elegant, meaningful free software licenses that grant maximal freedom to their adopters. Bill reports that 30 percent of the shared source releases from Microsoft fall under these permissive licenses.