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Linux founder opens door to DRM

Linus Torvalds posts a message saying nothing in the basic rules for the Linux operating system should block developers from using digital rights management technology.

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Linus Torvalds, the founder of the Linux operating system, threw a curve ball to the open-source programming community Thursday.

In a posting sent to a key Linux-focused e-mail list, Torvalds outlined a controversial proposal: Nothing in the basic rules for the Linux operating system should block developers from using digital rights management (DRM) technology. DRM tools are technological locks or identification measures that range from ensuring a software program is genuine to protecting a movie against unauthorized copying.

In some open-source and "free software" circles, such locks and authentication measures are seen as infringements on programmers' freedom. In his posting, Torvalds took a more pragmatic approach--Linux is an operating system, not a political movement, and people should ultimately be able to do what they want with it, he said.

"I also don't necessarily like DRM myself," Torvalds wrote on the "Linux-kernel" mailing list. "But...I'm an 'Oppenheimer,' and I refuse to play politics with Linux, and I think you can use Linux for whatever you want to--which very much includes things I don't necessarily personally approve of."

The posting and subsequent discussion brought to light what remains a serious tension in some open-source programming circles.

Proprietary software and hardware developers, led in large part by Microsoft and Intel, are in the midst of a long-term "trusted computing" initiative that backers say will allow computer users to feel confident that software running on their machine is free of viruses and Trojan horses. As outlined in plans such as Microsoft's Palladium, however, that requires building authentication capabilities deep into computer hardware and operating systems.

Some open-source developers suspect that this is code for saying that some software--such as that created by the open-source community--won't be able to run on standard machines or won't interoperate with standard programs. Others fear that the authentication tools will simply allow big content companies such as movie studios or record labels far more control over how computer owners use their content.

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In his discussion, Torvalds conceded that content owners such as Walt Disney could see their hands strengthened if rights-management technology were built deeply into computing systems--but noted that the drive to have trusted software was also a valuable goal. The two could not be separated, he added.

"There is zero technical difference. It's only a matter of intent--and even the intent will be a matter of interpretation," Torvalds wrote. "This is why I refuse to disallow even the 'bad' kinds of uses--because not allowing them would automatically also mean that 'good' uses aren't allowed."

The posting prompted immediate debate on and off the list, both about the viability of DRM inside the Linux operating system and the desirability of having a policy that allowed it. Many people approved of Torvalds' pragmatic approach, but others remained skeptical for technical or societal reasons.

"As Linus has pointed out, there are desirable and there are undesirable uses of DRM," wrote a Werner Almesberger. "If endorsing DRM will just get us flooded with the undesirable ones, plus an insignificant number of the desirable ones, we'll have made a lousy deal."

Another poster, named Tony Mantler, noted that any DRM-based Linux protections could simply be avoided by swapping in a version of Linux that only pretended to have the protections.


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"Making DRM in Linux secure would be like winning a hand of poker against someone who can change all the playing cards at will," wrote Mantler.

Torvalds has issued edicts on thorny legal issues of Linux before. For example, he decreed that it's permissible to let the kernel--the open-source code at the heart of Linux--call upon proprietary modules of software. That's an important issue in some cases, such as video card companies that might want to support Linux but not reveal the inner workings of the software that controls their products.

Discussion remains ongoing about whether DRM in Linux is a good idea--or even whether Torvalds has enough sway in the community to make his opinion stick. Torvalds said later he was willing to be persuaded to a different point of view.

"One of the reasons for posting (the message) was to get feedback, after all," he wrote in an e-mail to CNET News.com. "I always reserve the right to change my mind as a result of discussion."

News.com's Stephen Shankland and Evan Hansen contributed to this report.