A couple of weeks ago, Sun Microsystems released specifications and source code for DReaM, an open-source, “royalty-free digital rights management standard” designed to operate on any certified device, licensing rights to the user rather than to any particular piece of hardware. DReaM (Digital Rights Management — everywhere availble) is the centerpiece of Sun’s Open Media Commons initiative, announced late last summer as an alternative to Microsoft, Apple and other content protection systems. Yesterday, it was the subject of Eliot Van Buskirk’s column in Wired:
Sun is talking about a sea change on the scale of the switch from the barter system to paper money. Like money, this standardized DRM system would have to be acknowledged universally, and its rules would have to be easily converted to other systems (the way U.S. dollars are officially used only in America but can be easily converted into other currency). Consumers would no longer have to negotiate separate deals with each provider in order to access the same catalog (more or less). Instead, you — the person, not your device — would have the right to listen to songs, and those rights would follow you around, as long as you’re using an approved device.
The OMC promises to “promote both intellectual property protection and user privacy,” and certainly DReaM, with its focus on interoperability, does seem less draconian than today’s prevailing systems. Even Larry Lessig has endorsed it, pointing with satisfaction to a “fair use” mechanism that is built into the architecture, ensuring that certain uses like quotation, parody, or copying for the classroom are not circumvented. Van Buskirk points out, however, that the fair use protection is optional and left to the discretion of the publisher (not a promising sign). Interestingly, the debate over DReaM has caused a rift among copyright progressives. Van Buskirk points to an August statement from the Electronic Frontier Foundation criticizing DReaM for not going far enough to safeguard fair use, and for falsely donning the mantle of openness:
Using “commons” in the name is unfortunate, because it suggests an online community committed to sharing creative works. DRM systems are about restricting access and use of creative works.
True. As terms like “commons” and “open source” seep into the popular discourse, we should be increasingly on guard against their co-option. Yet I applaud Sun for trying to tackle the interoperability problem, shifting control from the manufacturers to an independent standards body. But shouldn’t mandatory fair use provisions be a baseline standard for any progressive rights scheme? DReaM certainly looks like less of a nightmare than plain old DRM but does it go far enough?