DRM for Linux?

by on April 10, 2006 · 10 comments

ZDNet Australia has a very confused article about the merits of supporting digital rights management technology in Linux.

Jeff Ayars, a vice president at RealNetworks, said in a talk at LinuxWorld in Boston on Tuesday that if Linux does not offer support for DRM, people will not be able to run restricted digital content on the operating system, which will damage its success in the consumer market.

“The consequences of Linux not supporting DRM would be that fixed-purpose consumer electronics and Windows PCs would be the sole entertainment platforms available,” Ayars said. “Linux would be further relegated to use in servers and business computers, since it would not be providing the multimedia technologies demanded by consumers.”

He pointed out that Microsoft Vista is implementing a number of digital rights technologies, such as Protected Media Path, Protected Video Path and Protected User Mode Audio. “I would like Linux to be able to do that as well,” he said. The support must be included in the Linux operating system, as a DRM system would not be able to trust drivers that were separately installed, according to Ayars.

The article continues with a garden variety back-and-forth about the merits of DRM, with the Free Software Foundation saying consumers don’t like it, and Ayers insisting they do. What neither side seems to understand is that it’s impossible to offer “DRM support” (in the sense Ayers means here) in an open source operating system.

Actually, we see a hint of this problem in Ayers’s last sentence, where he says that “a DRM system would not be able to trust drivers that were separately installed.” This points to the way in which DRM is fundamentally different from other features an operating system might have. Most features you might add to an operating system add new functionality, such as the ability to use a new device or support a new kind of network service. But adding “DRM support” to an operating system involves something different: fundamentally, it means giving the rights holder an assurance that the operating system won’t do a particular set of things, such as making unscrambled copies of the protected content.

Microsoft can make that guarantee because Windows is its proprietary product. It won’t release a version of Windows that breaks the rules of the DRM scheme. And by keeping its source code secret, it makes it difficult (though in practice not that difficult) for users to modify the software to provide the verboten functionality. Moreover, because it controls the operating system, it can restrict which device drivers can run on the OS, and refuse to grant permission to any device driver that breaks the rules.

Every DRM scheme needs a centralized authority like Microsoft to ensure that the rules will be followed. There needs to be someone with the legal authority to prevent unauthorized parties from modifying the software to provide the functionality that the DRM scheme has guaranteed will not be available to the user.

The problem is that the GPL, under which Linux is distributed, precludes anyone from playing the role of “DRM traffic cop.” Linux Torvalds is Linux’s benevelent dictator, but he governs only by consensus. He cannot make any sort of promise–and certainly not a legally binding guarantee–that no one will take his DRM-approved version of Linux and produce a spin-off version that provides the verboten functinoality.

Commercial Linux vendors like Red Hat face the same problem. The GPL requires that anyone who produces a modified version of GPLed software must release his source code on the same terms as the original program. So if Red Hat released a version of its OS with “DRM support,” they would be required to release the source, and others would be free to modify the software to undermine the copy restrictions.

In short, DRM is inherently proprietary. I think that failure to understand this point underlies a lot of confusion in the debate over DRM and the DMCA. A lot of reasonable people acknowledge that the current DRM has some problems, but have confidence that future generations of DRM technology will fix those problems, giving us flexible, interoperable DRM schemes that anyone is free to implement. Steve Wildstrom is one such commentator. But that hope amounts to a conceptual confusion. There’s no such thing as open source DRM and there never will be.

I’m not surprised that Ayars doesn’t get it. I’m more disappointed at the response of the FSF, because they ought to know better. Perhaps they did make the point to the reporter, but the reporter chose not to include it in the article.

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