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Digital Rights Management and Microsoft Windows Longhorn, Palladium

On this page our CEO, Nicolai, explains the reasoning behind our strategic shift towards Linux. This is recommended reading for all our users.

16 November 2002


I have been watching the DRM/DCMA/security debate closely, and have taken notice of the upcoming version of Microsoft Windows, codenamed Palladium. This is the next step down the wrong road, and will have a significant impact on all non-profit software (shareware, freeware) and free artistic expression.

The end of freedom

Palladium is a DRM (Digital Rights Management) "enabled" system, which means it will protect copyrights at the cost of freedom. Microsoft will be spending the time up to the release of Palladium perfecting the licensing technology (XBox, WMP9, Longhorn), and slowly spreading it through service packs and updates to common software such as Windows Media Player. You may already have DRM software on your PC. And if you don't have it by now, you can expect it to sneak in during the coming 2 years in one of the endless updates you need for your Microsoft products.

The implementation of DRM technology into both the chipset (Intel, AMD), hardware (law proposals in the US), and into commercial software, would be the end of freedom over your PC. It is a complete win for commercial interests; artists are essentially required to work through established companies (members of RIAA, MPAA). Software developers are required to get their products certified by Microsoft. And if you're running Windows, there's no escape.

Fortunately, this development has split the tech industry in two camps: the commercial interests, and the people who develop the technology. This is what gave rise to Linux a few years ago, and it's the primary drive behind Open Source. An alternative to commercial interest was and is needed, especially when making profit is the only game in town.

The DRM software will be introduced to consumers as something that will help them, and many will fail to see the overall strategy. In 3-4 years, you will be faced with the choice many in the tech industry are already facing: Do you want convenience or freedom ?

Convenience means that you will be able to download and play (a single time) the latest movie or album, once you've paid for it. You might be able to try out software or games for a small fee. And you can read the latest Stephen King e-book on your tablet PC, once enough money has been paid to him.

Unfortunately, in that scenario you will not be able to replace a broken hardware/software without first paying a small fee for a new license, or call charges to get your existing license upgraded to approve the replacement (keep in mind that lifes can be endangered by any delay, under some "unfortunate" circumstances). You will not be able to purchase a CD, and place a soundtrack for your home video. You will not be able to compile your own "greatest hits" or "mood" CDs. And you'll need to communicate with the suppliers to get approval for everything you do. But, after all, that's not the worst part.

The worst result of all this is the loss of artistic expression.

You will start noticing these changes from January 2003, when Download.com introduces a $99 fee for every update a software developer posts on the site. This may reduce the available software by 60-80%, as independent developers of shareware and freeware falls away. Only the commercial products will remain (Spinner will upload 1 version of WinMapper during 2003, and the other products will not be uploaded).

By making such a requirement, the free alternative falls away, and the commercial interests can gain complete control, increasing their profits. The loss is for the consumer, who loses out on new ideas and alternatives.

Now, in the past 10 years there has been a major shift in the industry away from "middle-men". The internet made it possible to purchase directly from the supplier, be it media, software, hardware, hard goods, clothing or mobile phones. This, however, is a major threat to the recording and movie industry. Why would you pay 20 Euro for a CD if you could download it from the artists' site for 5 EUR ?

The introduction of Palladium and related DRM technologies will stop this dead in its track. To release anything that can be played under Windows, you need to be licensed by Microsoft or the RIAA/MPAA. This will come at a price, and will eliminate many potentially great artists.

You might think "yeah, but the geeks will find a way to get around all that". Yes, we will :). But that will be illegal by then. Small companies, researchers, medical institutions, schools and independent artists are already feeling this effect - just look at the many laws and (succesful!) lawsuits that has been passed in the past year or two.

I do not expect WinMapper to even be able to run under Palladium, which will probably mean the end of a Windows version by 2007. Why ? Well, WinMapper relies on being hooked into Windows, and the ability to "play" with other applications. This is not possible under a secure DRM system.

In addition, WinMapper is not a profitable business (yet :), so it all comes out of my pocket. You can imagine the costs for making WinMapper available to the wider world: Download.com fees, Microsoft registration fees, software licenses, certifications, yearly fees for a digital signature (so it is allowed to run), additional fees for an "advanced" signature giving WinMapper additional access to the operating system (so some functions might work), e-commerce and website expenses, the time spent, and so forth. So, even assuming that in the first version of Palladium some things may still be possible, this would come at a great cost.

Remember, we are "priviledged" to some extent; imagine the school teacher wanting to record and distribute his own video courses on a subject. Or the first-time writer who wants to publish a small novel online. You think they'll be able to afford all this ?

The Internet made it possible for the whole world to interact; to share knowledge and ideas, artistic expressions, philosophies and technology. We now communicate globally, and has come to expect and rely on this fact. If we allow corporate interests to dictate what, who and where people might access electronic data, we run the risk of blocking inspiration and creativity from the public domain. Then it all becomes pop.

A special thanks goes out to ->M.I.T. for devoting themselves to distributing courses online for free, for ever. Let's just hope students will be able to play the courses in Windows Media Player.

The alternative

The "IT geeks" were the first to realize the dangers, and have aggresively been pursuing an alternative for the past few years. Thanks to that, you now have Linux and advanced applications such as Open Office.

Linux is now enjoying a larger share in the IT industry, and will become increasingly important and attractive over the coming years. The final push will come with the 2nd version of Palladium, when the vast majority of consumers realize what's going on.

The confrontation that will be evident to all in 3-4 years comes when Linux has gained enough support with the consumers to warrant media playback on Linux, but the media giants has effectively blocked this. We'll see who wins, but personally I'd rather wait with watching the latest movie until it's on TV than giving up control over my PC and the stuff I buy. And that's the key decision we will all face in 5 years time.

By that time, it is our hope that one of two things has happened: 1) The consumers has had enough, and stop this trend before it goes too far. 2) Linux, as a platform, enjoys enough support and development from independent software developers to provide a 100% viable alternative to the big corporations.

We will do our part, as software developers, to help Linux become that viable alternative. When enough applications are available the consumers have real choice, and we can stop or undo the current trend.

It has therefore been decided that Spinner will start supporting Linux during 2003. We expect to start with Red Hat and Kylix in January, and have a beta version of WinMapper for Linux over the summer. By supporting both Windows and Linux in the coming 5 years, we can still pay our bills and develop fresh alternatives under Linux. This will enable us to have a WinMapper for Windows until Palladium is the only Windows operating system. It also means that however this plays out over the coming years, at least we can remain in control over our software and PCs.

If you would like to read more about DRM, the DCMA and the dangers we are facing, please visit these tech sites:

->The Register

->SlashDot (/.)



->The Age

Or, visit your preferred news provider such as ->BBC News

For more information about Open Source and Linux:


->Linux Online

Always investigate further and trust your own judgement. Your freedom is your opinion.

By Nicolai Kjaer

CEO, Spinner Software BV