Linux, digital rights on collision course

HP executive blames Digital Millennium Copyright Act for incompatibility with open-source software.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Widespread use of Linux and open-source software is an inevitability, but the new programming technique is running into troubles with the important new technology of digital rights management, Hewlett-Packard's top Linux executive said Tuesday.

Digital rights management (DRM) uses encryption to protect proprietary content such as music or movies. But it's not just for entertainment: DRM also will govern confidential documents and other mainstream business information, said Martin Fink, HP's vice president for Linux, during a keynote address at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo.

Right now there is a risk that DRM adoption will lock out Linux and open-source software, Fink said: "Unfortunately, DRM and open-source software are today largely incompatible because of an extension to copyright law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act."

Indeed, the tensions between open-source software and DRM have led to legal fights over Linux support for the decryption needed to play movies on DVD. Ultimately, the solution to the DMCA problem will require lobbying to change the rules, Fink said; some in Congress have proposed changes to the law.

HP has a vested interest in the area: The company is angling to be both a major supplier of Linux gear and a key partner for those creating, disseminating and consuming digital content.

Fink didn't mention Microsoft by name, but the implication was clear that the software giant could prevail at the expense of open-source software because of DRM.

"While there is a need to protect digital media in all its forms, it's also important that open software be able to participate in this environment," Fink said. "If we fail, we will create an environment in which one company has de facto control over your documents.

Fink also had a criticism of the open-source realm: There are too many licenses, he said. Some are widely used, such as the General Public License (GPL) that governs Linux, but there are dozens more. At an Open Source Development Labs meeting last week, Fink said, he learned that there are 52 open-source licenses, with three more expected soon.

"There is no value, and there is really confusion in having that many licenses. If you're a vendor planning to create a new license, stop. Call me. Tell me why," he said. "I approve three to five open-source projects or contributions a week" without having to employ any new licenses, he added.

Despite the challenges, Linux and open-source software will prevail, Fink predicted.

Sales of Linux servers are expected to reach $9.7 billion by 2008, he said, and the operating system will spread into many other computing devices. "Linux has the ability to be almost everywhere and in almost any mildly intelligent device you can think of," Fink said.

"Open source is going to allow companies to take cost out of the system at an amazing rate," he said. "Companies will not be able to afford to not take advantage of this change."

Also at the show, Fink touted HP's new Linux laptop, the nx5000, and demonstrated handwriting recognition on a tablet PC.