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Sun launches open-source digital rights plan

Sun President Jonathan Schwartz announces a long-brewing project, called the Open Media Commons.

After years of work, Sun Microsystems has begun trying to rally corporate allies behind a neutral standard for digital rights management, technology that governs how music, video or other information can be used or copied.

Sun President Jonathan Schwartz announced the long-brewing project, called the Open Media Commons, at the Progress and Freedom Foundation's Aspen Summit on Sunday. The software the company hopes will be employed for digital rights management (DRM) is coming from Sun Labs and is called Dream (DRM everywhere available).

Dream is open-source software governed by Sun's Community Development and Distribution License--the same license it uses to cover its OpenSolaris operating system. Dream's components include software for letting different DRM systems interoperate based on credentials held by individuals, not by particular devices; server software for delivering streaming video; and Java software for managing video streams.

"There are a small number of companies that are presenting themselves as tollgates to the management of digital rights," Schwartz said in an interview. "The Dream DRM solution will bypass the InterTrust and ContentGuard and MPEG LA patents, so that when your child grows up they won't have to pay a buck to watch a home movie."

The lack of DRM standards has been a problem. For example, music downloaded from one company's music store can't always be played on any digital music player.

Sun has been working on DRM since at least 2002, when Chief Executive Scott McNealy first spoke of his aspirations in that area. During that time, some DRM technologies have become dominant. For example, Apple Computer's iTunes music store works tightly with its iPod music player, and Microsoft employs another DRM in its Windows Media Player software.

Sun is nonplussed with the lag, though. "We are nothing if not deliberate," Schwartz said. "We had to get a few of the major pieces in line."

Critical to the success of the initiative will be in the partners Sun can enlist--and the rivals for interest are strong and numerous. Besides Microsoft and Apple, for example, the Coral Consortium includes many consumer electronics giants. And efforts akin to Sun's haven't caught on--for example, a DRM standardization push by RealNetworks and the Digital Media Project.

Sun isn't afraid to step on toes, however. Asked whether Microsoft and Apple might sign up, Schwartz said, "We're interested in companies who would like to see a free and open-source DRM solution in the marketplace. Those who (prefer) a single-vendor or single-device solution don't see the network as we do," he said.

Missing those allies might hamper adoption of Sun's technology, but at the same time it could attract other partners. Hollywood studios and record labels have been notoriously nervous about standardizing on a technology that ties them too closely to Apple or Microsoft.

And Schwartz believes partners will come, as they did when Sun launched the Liberty Alliance for simplifying the process of logging on to multiple servers. With Liberty, "we clearly brought a tidal wave of support across the industry. You should expect we will do exactly the same here," Schwartz said.

Liberty was initially intended to thwart a Microsoft-centric technology called Passport, but the software behemoth backed off that plan, and now the field is the first area of cooperation in a detente between Microsoft and Sun.

On the heels of that new detente with Microsoft in 2004, Schwartz said he hoped the software company would cooperate in DRM. "I would like to believe we will have cooperation on a single standard," Schwartz said.

Sun also believes it can bypass corporate powers though use of open-source software. "Now it's no longer simply about engaging a few corporate interests. The open-source community is all about engaging the planet," Schwartz said, including individuals who might want to sell their own digital content over peer-to-peer networks.

Corporate allies are part of the plan, though. Here, Sun is turning to one of its traditional allies, the carriers who sell mobile phone service. "They recognize, as do we, that requiring $1 per handset for a DRM license is impractical," Schwartz said.

Sun's technology governs the sharing of digital information, but not how it's encoded with methods such as MP3 for audio. Ultimately, "codecs" for encoding and decoding media should also be part of the alliance, said Glenn Edens, a senior vice president and director at Sun Labs.

"I think a solid open-source community around codecs is equally important to the DRM. We're trying kick off both communities," Edens said.