Sun Jump-Starts Open-Source DRM Project

Sun Microsystems announced today it is spearheading the Open Media Commons to create an open-source, royalty-free digital content management (DRM) technology to protect copyrighted digital content from misuse-use. The stated goal of the Open Media Commons is to create an open DRM solution covering the full range of digital media, from content production to its eventual purchase and/or use by consumers.

The question is: will it fly?

DRM technology and its implications are a contentious issue in both the technology and media industries. Media and content providers see DRM as essential for preventing piracy and misuse-use of their material, such as music, television shows, and movies. Technologists argue DRM schemes are awkward, arbitrary, and impinge on users’ rights—in some cases even preventing users (such as musicians or home videographers) from using material which they own (such as their own recordings or home movies).

Some believe DRM schemes’ days are numbered, since users dislike battling arbitrary restrictions on how they can manage their files, and so far content pirates have had little trouble circumventing DRM methods. Thus, existing DRM schemes may be more of an impediment to distributing digital content than a benefit to content producers.

DRM technologies are currently dominated by Microsoft Windows Media, Real Networks Helix, and (in music) Apple Computer’s FairPlay. With the exception of Apple (which has not licensed its FairPlay DRM to third parties), companies wishing to use these technologies pay a royalty to use these technologies. Incompatibilities between existing DRM schemes have been implicated in limiting the growth of online music sales, since songs purchased from Apple’s iTunes Music Store only work on iPods, and Apple’s market-leading iPods don’t play tracks protected with other DRM technologies. DRM is expected to have similar constricting effects on other digital media sales, but studios and major content producers so far refuse to consider digital content sales without some way to prevent at least what they see as "casual" piracy.

A royalty-free open-source DRM technology—dubbed Project DReaM at the Open Media Commons—would create an open standard for DRM which all content providers and technology makers could use, without locking their content to one particular platform, company, or technology. Software and devices using the standard would be mutually compatible, and both end users and content producers would have access to uniform capabilities.

Sun says teams at Sun Laboratories will be contributing to Project Dream in the coming weeks, and the company hopes the broader open source community will join in the effort. Although many in the open source community oppose DRM technologies on principle, perhaps some might consider an open DRM standard better than a marketplace dominated by proprietary, mutually-exclusive technologies.

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