Sun Shines On Open Source DRM Development

Trying to download the same song to your PC, MP3 player, and cell phone usually means downloading three different files from three different sources, thanks to the brand-exclusive DRMs that come with each individual digital content player. Sun Microsystems is trying to find a way to simplify that process with its Open Media Commons initiative, a cross-industry, open source project aimed at developing a royalty-free rights management standard for digital content.

Sun's COO, Jonathan Schwartz, urged developers to take an active role in finding a DRM solution that is both content user- and creator-friendly: "The whole concept here is, let's build on what exists," he explained while introducing the project at the Progress & Freedom Foundation's Aspen Summit. "Clearly there needs to be a solution, for the community and somewhat by the community," Schwartz said. Glenn Edens, SVP of communications, media, and entertainment at Sun Labs, explained that the program's goals go beyond finding a DRM solution and include addressing "the application of DRM technology to a wide range of content and situations" as well as creating "an open environment . . . to address the technical problems associated with DRM."

Sun has already made the first move by offering for free download from its Web site its internal Sun Labs program Project DReaM, a collection of Sun's DRM software, under the Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL)—the same license used by the Mozilla Firefox browser. Included for download are DRM-OPERA (interoperable DRM architecture with a standardized interface and user-based license provisions), Java Stream Assembly (a launch pad for distributing on-demand, broadcast, and interactive TV streaming content), and the Sun Streaming Server (server for standards-compliant A/V streams via IP). Sun has committed to sharing more of its technology over time, and Edens says that Sun is already posting the first round of Project DReaM contributions to the Open Media Commons Web site. 

With this new project, Sun will be challenging digital content device manufacturers like Microsoft, Sony, and Apple, each of whom already have their own exclusive DRM systems. The Open Media Commons initiative benefits from being "platform independent," according to John Blossom, a technology analyst at Shore Communications. "DReaM doesn't need to ride on a particulate piece of hardware or even an OS," he said. He adds that this might give Sun the advantage over its established competitors, each of whom are "trying to get a lock" on the market with their particular brands of DRM and technologies, rather than looking for a unified standard. 

Sun's Open Media Commons isn't looking to tear down DRM. Instead, it's hoping to take the technology companies out of the royalty equation, allowing direct licensing agreements between content users and creators. Edens explains, "Sun believes that content should be licensed to the individual, regardless of what device that person is using—a concept that we call ‘personal rights management.'" 

There is some skepticism in the Web community that the concept of DRM is antithetical to open source development. Edward W. Felten, professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University, wrote in his "Freedom to Tinker" blog post titled, "A Perfectly Compatible Form of Incompatibility," "Incompatibility isn't an unfortunate side-effect of deficient DRM systems—it's the goal of DRM. A perfectly compatible, perfectly transparent DRM system is a logical impossibility."

In order to achieve their cross-industry goals, Sun still needs to get copyrighted content giants like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Industry Association of America (MPIAA), to accept a DRM solution that might come out of the Open Media Commons project. Additionally, competing digital device makers with their own DRM systems, such as Microsoft, would have to amend their current policies to play content licensed by outside sources. 

Other analysts, like Blossom, feel that the technology community is ready for Sun's ambitious plan: "DRM should be a feature that's accessible worldwide," he says. "DRM needs to be less about lockdown or platforms than enabling use." Edens, too, is confident that the current technological environment is ready for open cooperation and community development: "Open system architectures are fundamentally more secure and robust than closed, proprietary systems," he says. "With our successful history of building open communities, and with our proven commitment to open source, we feel that we're the ideal company to lead this cross-industry effort." Digital content users and creators will be keeping their eyes on Sun's Open Media Commons, wondering if a DRM solution that works for everyone will finally emerge.