Sun releases DRM project as open source

Sun Microsystems Inc. is releasing its digital rights management (DRM) project under an open-source licence, in hopes of driving a unified standard in the technology used to protect digital media such as music and movies, the company announced Sunday.

Sun’s DReaM Project will be released in the coming weeks under the open-source Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL) as the foundation for the Open Media Commons, said Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s president. Sun will invite other companies to join the project.

“The whole concept here is we build on what exists, let’s build on existing open-source licenses that people trust,” he said during a speech Sunday at a Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF) conference in Aspen, Colorado. “Let’s build on the existing technology consortiums that work together.”

A common, royalty-free DRM standard would allow digital content creators to get paid no matter what device a consumer is using, Schwartz added. As more and more devices — from wristwatches to big-screen television sets — become capable of handling digital content, DRM needs to work across all digital devices, all formats and all business models to avoid confusion in the marketplace, he said.

“We’re clearly coming into a world where devices … will no longer be built for their functionality; they will be built for their form,” he said. “We have to have a solution that contemplates diversity. It cannot contemplate a single device, a single format, a single protocol.”

A royalty-free version of DRM should be available as more people creating their own Web logs or podcasts become content creators, he added. People outside large media organizations are creating compelling content and should have a way to protect it if they choose to, Schwartz said.

Sun didn’t have any Open Media Commons partners to announce Sunday, but Schwartz said he’s confident others will join, just as they did with the Liberty Alliance identity management project founded in September 2001. The Liberty Alliance now counts 150 companies, nonprofits and government organizations as members.

While Schwartz suggested that users trust royalty-free open standards, that idea met some resistance at the Aspen event, sponsored by the PFF, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. James DeLong, senior fellow and director of the PFF Center for the Study of Digital Property, questioned how Sun would make money giving away a project that it’s already worked on for years. “In the end, Sun will need some revenue stream to support this,” DeLong said.

Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, said Schwartz may be ignoring an economic incentive for creating a product such as DRM if he’s trying to give it away for free. “Isn’t it economically naive to say … checking accounts are free and Google is free?” he said. “The fact that you don’t pay for it doesn’t mean it’s free. You’re failing to take into account alternative business models that ultimately result in a revenue stream to somebody.”

The Internet itself is built on open standards like HTTP and Sun’s Java, and many companies have found ways to make money on the Internet, Schwartz answered. “We drove Java because we thought the Internet needed a standard,” Schwartz said. “The marketplace asked how we made money, but in the year 2005, we have US$7.5 billion dollars in cash. So don’t you worry yourself about that.”

After the crowd stopped laughing, Schwartz noted that Sun and other technology companies made money by supplying software and hardware companies needed to connect to the Internet. “Standards, in the end, create way more market opportunity,” he added.

Some in the audience questioned if royalty-free standards were always the best approach. Schwartz seemed to acknowledge that the open-source project could upset some DRM-based business models advanced by other software vendors or entertainment companies. So far, large companies offering DRM and digital content have been asking customers to pay for it, and the Open Media Commons project could create new business models, he said.

“For the most part, the companies involved have looked at, ‘I have a movie, you have money. Let’s swap,'” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to be the most popular business model on the Internet.”

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