Fighting For Your Digital Rights

Sun Microsystems is making some software available to the open-source community to launch an effort to create standardized software for digital-rights management.
Sun Microsystems earlier this week introduced several open-source projects aimed at creating standardized software for digital-rights management that will help content creators and distributors control the movement and use of intellectual property. Although it might seem that this technology is important only to artists and the multimedia conglomerates that peddle their works, digital-rights management actually affects anyone who creates and packages content, from U2 to the guy in the next office working on a multimedia presentation to explain changes to his company's latest benefits package.

Indeed, moviemakers and record companies aren't the only content creators who need to think about digital-rights management. Any company that publishes content to the Web needs to consider how that information is used. Digital-rights-management tools like the ones Sun is proposing could be used to let a company encode important video presentations or podcasts and control how that information is distributed and used.

Although consumers of digital media probably don't care who provides the standards that let them listen to music and watch videos over their computers, cell phones, and MP3 players, the companies that provide this content care in a very big way. "This whole shift to digital media is enormous, and there's a lot of money at stake," says Mike McGuire, a research director with the research and analyst firm GartnerG2.

Digital-rights-management software works by wrapping a file, whether it's a song or a piece of video, in a software container that defines rules for the content's use and prevents uncontrolled redistribution. PCs and other media players read these rules and enforce them for the copyrighted files. Where digital-rights management becomes a challenge is in creating one system that meets the needs for the different technologies on which these files can be played, whether it's a Windows-based PC or an Apple iPod.

Sun's goal with the Open Media Commons initiative that chief operating officer Jonathan Schwartz introduced Sunday at the Progress and Freedom Foundation Aspen Summit is to create an open-source project for developing digital-rights-management software as well as a community that will further develop and support the technology.

Sun Labs' Dream software forms the core technology for Open Media Commons. Dream actually consists of three different applications, each of which is licensed under Sun's Common Development and Distribution License. Dream includes DRM-Opera, a digital-rights-management architecture that uses standardized interfaces and processes to let different digital-rights-management systems work together regardless of operating system or hardware specifications. Opera could potentially be used to standardize future development of digital-rights-management software already offered by Microsoft, Apple, Sony, and Intertrust Technologies.

Microsoft and Sun have enjoyed a stronger level of cooperation and collaboration in various areas since last year's legal settlement, Marcus Matthias, product manager for Microsoft Windows Digital Media, writes in an E-mail interview. "Microsoft views interoperability as an important step for the continued growth of the digital media ecosystem and strongly believes in the need for interoperability among content-protection systems used by various industries such as consumer and mobile electronics."

Dream also includes Java Stream Assembly, an application programming interface designed to reduce the complexity in building and managing video streams delivered over networks, and Sun Streaming Server, designed to serve standards-compliant audio and video streams over IP networks using open-standard protocols, including RTP and RTSP.

DRM-Opera and Java Stream Assembly have since Sunday been available from Sun's site because both programs are written in Java, while Sun Streaming Server, written using the C programming language, is available through the open-source repository.

In addition to the three software projects already available through Open Media Commons, Sun plans to provide more Dream components in coming months, including a key management server that lets users create, store, and exchange keys used for public-key cryptography, a policy server, and a connector that can be used between the Sun Streaming Server and other streaming servers.

Although at first it seems strange for Sun to be the one trying to bring together multiple players in the content creation and distribution markets, the company actually has huge stake in the future of digital content. "We've enabled close to 1 billion Java-based cell phones," says Glenn Edens, a senior VP with Sun and the director of Sun Labs. "We've also created a Java software stack that we sell to virtually every telecom carrier. Worldwide, content distribution happens through mobile devices."

Sun also is interested in changing the way conditional-access software allows access to content. "Today, they're based on the concept that you license content to a device, but our belief is that if you're going to do any licensing, it should be based on the identity of individuals," Edens says.

Sun's biggest challenge is getting a critical mass of open-source software developers, record labels, content providers, and device manufacturers to participate in the Open Media Commons community. Adding to this challenge is the presence of other industry consortia, including Coral, a cross-industry group formed by Hewlett-Packard, Intertrust, Sony, and others to promote interoperability between digital-rights management technologies used in the consumer media market. "It's a very long road for Sun, and it's got a lot of potholes in it," McGuire says. "You start getting multiple standards and groups, and I start to get worried."

Edens notes that while organizations such as Coral already exist, they address a small piece of what Open Media Commons will do. In fact, software created out of the Coral effort is based on Web services and could integrate with software developed by Sun's project, he adds.

Sun's role with the Liberty Alliance, which includes more than 150 companies sharing standards for identity management, shows that the company can have some success with large industry organizations. Edens acknowledges that the Liberty Alliance began without much support, but he also notes that the effort has since met with great success. "We started from scratch with Liberty with a set of principles that resonated with everyone as well as a relentless desire to make it succeed," he says.

Although it's too early to tell whether Sun will succeed with its Open Media Commons effort, there is definitely a need for some form of digital-rights management standards. Says McGuire: "No one will want islands of content on portable devices that don't work on their PCs or on emerging devices."