Lessig, Stallman on 'Open Source' DRM
Best of all possible shaftings?
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.
"If you look at the issue from the perspective of the FSM, you come to a completely opposite conclusion, which is: the whole point of DRM is to deny your freedom and prevent you from having control over the software you use to access certain data. That's the direct opposite of our goal. So our goal is not served by having a free program that implements DRM. It doesn't make anything any better for our freedom. So from the point of the Free Software movement in general, a TiVoized program is not good at all, because it doesn't deliver the freedom that Free Software stands for."
Stallman offers a neat encapsulation of this approach:
"We're not very concerned with how a program was developed, we're concerned with what people are allowed to do with it now."
Stallman then explains the perils of TiVo-ization. This was the case that prompted the writing of Clause 3 of the revised GPL 3.0, [draft  - rationale behind change , which is currently in a lengthy consultation process.
What's TiVo-ization, Richard?
TiVo uses a lot of free software, he explains. It's a stripped down GNU/Linux system, containing portions including the kernel which are under a GPL license and have the source code available.
"Released under GPL, this would be great except for one thing," says Stallman. "If you install a modified version in it, it won't run. The hardware has been set up to detect modified versions and not run them."
Stallman then reiterates the four freedoms that he says underpin Free Software. Real programmers count from zero, so freedom Zero is the freedom to run the program as you wish; One is the freedom to study and change the software; Two is the freedom to redistribute copies as you wish; Three is the freedom to distribute modifed versions as you wish.
"TiVo nominally gives you Freedom One, but practically it does not; it turns it into a sham," he says.
Stallman says the specific example is important - and he implicitly rejects the idea that the market will supply demand for these freedoms in this case.
"If the TiVo was one amongst a spectrum of products that run that software, then it might not matter. You might be OK, and no one would get TiVos anymore. But in fact, often there is no other alternative, and we know there are conspiracies amongst large companies to ensure there is no alternative. So we can't just count on competition to make this problem unimportant," he says.
"We're trying to make sure Freedom One will never be turned into a sham."
Stallman sums up the position that DRM will never be 'free'.
"The crucial thing in Free Software is a moral principal - after all, Free Software didn't begin in 1982. Licenses had existed before 1982. So Free Software is not about a 'model', it's about an ethical stand. Users must have these Four Freedoms."
So what was Professor Lessig's rationale for supporting an 'open source' DRM? He explained more on his weblog the following day, and went into even more detail with us this week.
"If all one says is (a) 'Sun's openDRM is great,' that's praising DRM," says Lessig . "But if one says (b) 'we should live in a world without DRM, and we should be building infrastructure and laws that render DRM unnecessary, but if we have DRM, then Sun's is better than Hollywood's,' then that's not 'praising DRM' but identifying a lesser evil. Again, what I did was give a speech at Sun conference where I said (b).
He expanded -
"There's no disagreement about where we should end up - No DRM."
"The only real disagreement is about the dynamic consequences - how this new kind of DRM affects the ecology for DRM generally. About this, I think honest people have to say no one knows, but we each have our own hunch. My view is openDRM pollutes the control freaks' plan so significantly that it can't achieve what they want - a general infrastructure of control built into the technology. Of course, I could be wrong about that."
Lessig stresses he hasn't endorsed the Sun technology.
"How do you say free on the Apple platform? How do you even have the argument? There is no doubt some version of DRM is with us over the next 5 years at a minimum. I want it to be possible to wage the war for free culture in that space as easily as it can be waged in this world."
"We can win the battle against it without eradicating DRM from every corner of cyberspace. Instead, I view 'the battle' about DRM much like I view 'the battle' over free software. Free software (in the Stallman sense of that term) 'wins the battle' when it is the major platform upon which software development is done. In that sense, free software has already won in certain important fields of battle, and in that sense, I certainly think free software will 'win the battle.' But when it wins, it won't trouble me that there are machines out there that are running Windows. To close the loop on the analogy, once 'the battle' against proprietary software is lost, Windows will have lost its virulence."
To Lessig, it's simply a pragmatic solution. Mako Hill can understand the pragmatism, but he isn't impressed.
"His answer is that where DRM exists – where we have already lost, it’s better to beg for scraps from the table."
"I think what Lessig is seeing is that everybody who buys an iPod buys a machine with DRM, and there's a billion songs out there that have DRM on them, and he’s saying there are all these hundreds of millions of devices that use DRM, so do we want it to be an open source, friendly DRM? It can only take certain fair use rights into account if it’s going to be effective at all."
"I think what he got was a promise the system could be used in a way that protects fair use. But media producers have the right of choosing which implementations they want. Do you think Time Warner will allow their media to play on machines that allow people to copy things?" ®