The Free Software Foundation is wading ever more deeply into the controversial waters of digital rights management, with members of its DefectiveByDesign.org campaign set to descend on flagship Apple stores in New York and London on Oct. 3 to protest the companys embrace of that technology.
"As consumer frustration grows over the DRM technology imposed by Apple through its popular iPod and iTunes store, 10,000 technologists are preparing to take direct action to raise public awareness of the larger threats posed by DRM, with more than 200 actions planned across the globe on Tuesday, Oct. 3," FSF Executive Director Peter Brown said in a statement Oct. 2.
DefectiveByDesign.org describes itself as a broad-based, anti-DRM campaign that is targeting "Big Media," unhelpful manufacturers and DRM distributors. Its goal is to raise the level of awareness to the threats posed by DRM technology.
It is targeting Apple, Sony, Microsoft, Disney and technology companies, as well as the film and music industry, which it refers to collectively as "Big Media."
The FSF believes that DRM technology is a growing problem for all computer users and, by extension, all of society. "DRM is typically used to restrict individuals use of their own copies of published works. To enforce these restrictions, DRM software, and now hardware, must monitor and control computer users behavior. Frequently it reports on what it sees," Brown said.
But the issue of DRM has been a controversial one, even among the free software community, which Brown says is not controlled by the large technology companies.
The DRM provisions included in the draft discussion documents for the next version of the GNU GPL (General Public License), Version 3, which was co-written by Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, have caused much concern in the free and open-source communities.
Many of the top Linux developers have also announced their objections to the proposed GPLv3. In a position paper released on Sept. 22, leading Linux developers said they object to the DRM clause.
"While we find the use of DRM by media companies in their attempts to reach into user-owned devices to control content deeply disturbing, our belief in the essential freedoms forbids us from ever accepting any license which contains end use restrictions. The existence of DRM abuse is no excuse for curtailing freedoms," the paper said.
They added that they believe that what constitutes DRM abuse is essentially political in nature and as such, "while we may argue forcefully for our political opinions, we may not suborn or coerce others to go along with them."
The brouhaha became so intense that the FSF clarified what it says is inaccurate information being presented about the second discussion draft of GPL 3.
The DefectiveByDesign campaign is targeting Apple because it wants consumers to become aware that iPod users cannot transfer their music to other non-Apple devices because the music downloaded from iTunes is encrypted—locked with DRM.
"Apple allows you to write an audio CD, but will leave you with very lousy sound quality if you ever want to take your music to a new portable device in a compressed format. These drawbacks are of course there for a reason: customer lock-in. Apple inconveniences its customers into binding themselves to Apple products," Brown said.
The FSF is also warning that Apples use of DRM is just a foreshadow of more to come.
"Standing behind the technology companies, Big Media has the agenda. To increase their control, they have been demanding that technology companies impose DRM. The technology companies, having themselves become part of Big Media, have stopped resisting," he said.
Sony has become a film and music company, Microsoft is an owner of MSNBC, and Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, sits on the board of Disney. "These technology companies do not represent the interests of the technology consumer," Brown said.
But not everyone thinks DRM is a bad idea. IT trade association, CompTIA (The Computing Technology Industry Association), which has as members many of the companies using DRM technology, believes DRM is an important tool that helps foster innovation.
Mike Wendy, CompTIAs media relations director, described the DefectiveByDesign campaign as "street theater that belittles the careful balance that many creators and innovators in the digital realm consider and ultimately decide they need. They want their ideas, products and creations consumed, while at the same time they dont want their hard-earned innovations out right stolen."
Products like Apples iTunes/iPod could not have been so successful without DRM, he said, adding that CompTIA feels it is important that DRM "not be tossed under the bus or automatically maligned—as we see here—but, rather, it be recognized as an important tool among others that can keep the pump of innovation open and available for global consumers."
The FSF further believes that Big Media wants to turn every interaction with a published work into a transaction, abolishing fair use and the commons, and making copyright effectively last forever, something that political lobbying to change copyright law has not yet succeeded in giving them, Brown said.
"By accepting DRM technology, users surrender their rights. That they are doing this unknowingly or under duress is irrelevant to the corporations involved," he said, adding that "the trend we are seeing is that each time a user is forced to upgrade their software, they downgrade the users rights. Every new DRM system has enforced a harsher control regime."
Apple has added more restrictions to its music service, and its new video service is yet more restrictive, he said.
But DRM is not restricted to music and video, Brown cautioned, adding that libraries, schools and universities are adding DRM, sometimes under duress, often without understanding the consequences.
"This means that in the future, there will be "no fair use. No purchase and resell. No private copies. No sharing. No backup. No swapping. No mix tapes. No privacy. No commons. No control over our computers. No control over our electronic devices. The conversion of our homes into an apparatus to monitor our interaction with published works and Web sites," Brown concluded.
Editors Note: This story was updated to include information and comments from CompTIA.