Opposing Digital Rights Mismanagement
(Or Digital Restrictions Management, as we now call it)
by Richard Stallman
In 1989, in a very different world, I wrote the first version of the GNU
General Public License, a license that gives computer users freedom. The
GNU GPL, of all the free software licenses, is the one that most fully
embodies the values and aims of the free software movement, by ensuring
the four fundamental freedoms for every user. These are freedoms to 0)
run the program as you wish; 1) study the source code and change it to
do what you wish; 2) make and distribute copies, when you wish; 3) and
distribute modified versions, when you wish.
Any license that grants these freedoms is a free software license. The
GNU GPL goes further: it protects these freedoms for all users of all
versions of the program by forbidding middlemen from stripping them off.
Most components of the GNU/Linux operating system, including the Linux
component that was made free software in 1992, are licensed under GPL
version 2, released in 1991. Now, with legal advice from Professor Eben
Moglen, I am designing version 3 of the GNU GPL.
GPLv3 must cope with threats to freedom that we did not imagine in
1989. The coming generation of computers, and many products with
increasingly powerful embedded computers, are being turned against us
by their manufacturers before we buy them—they are designed to
restrict what we can use them to do.
First, there was the TiVo. People may think of it as an appliance to
record TV programs, but it contains a real computer running a GNU/Linux
system. As required by the GPL, you can get the source code for the
system. You can change the code, recompile and install it. But once you
install a changed version, the TiVo won't run at all, because of a
special mechanism designed to sabotage you. Freedom No. 1, the freedom
to change the software to do what you wish, has become a sham.
Then came Treacherous Computing, promoted as “Trusted
Computing,” meaning that companies can “trust” your
computer to obey them instead of you. It enables network sites to tell
which program you are running; if you change the program, or write
your own, they will refuse to talk to you. Once again, freedom No. 1
becomes a sham.
Microsoft has a scheme, originally called Palladium, that enables an
application program to “seal” data so that no other
program can access it. If Disney distributes movies this way, you'll
be unable to exercise your legal rights of fair use and de minimis
use. If an application records your data this way, it will be the
ultimate in vendor lock-in. This too destroys freedom No. 1 — if
modified versions of a program cannot access the same data, you can't
really change the program to do what you wish. Something like
Palladium is planned for a coming version of Windows.
AACS, the “Advanced Access Content System,” promoted by
Disney, IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Sony, and others, aims to restrict use
of HDTV recordings—and software—so they can't be used
except as these companies permit. Sony was caught last year installing
a “rootkit” into millions of people's computers, and not
telling them how to remove it. Sony has learned its lesson: it will
install the “rootkit” in your computer before you get it,
and you won't be able to remove it. This plan explicitly requires
devices to be “robust”—meaning you cannot change
them. Its implementors will surely want to include GPL-covered
software, trampling freedom No. 1. This scheme should get
“AACSed,” and a boycott of HD DVD and Blu-ray has already
Allowing a few businesses to organize a scheme to deny our freedoms for
their profit is a failure of government, but so far most of the world's
governments, led by the U.S., have acted as paid accomplices rather than
policemen for these schemes. The copyright industry has promulgated its
peculiar ideas of right and wrong so vigorously that some readers may
find it hard to entertain the idea that individual freedom can trump
Facing these threats to our freedom, what should the free software
community do? Some say we should give in and accept the distribution
of our software in ways that don't allow modified versions to
function, because this will make our software more popular. Some refer
to free software as “open source,” that being the slogan
of an amoral approach to the matter, which cites powerful and reliable
software as the highest goals. If we allow companies to use our
software to restrict us, this “open source DRM” could help
them restrict us more powerfully and reliably. Those who wield the
power could benefit by sharing and improving the source code of the
software they use to do so. We too could read that source
code—read it and weep, if we can't make a changed version
run. For the goals of freedom and community—the goals of the
free software movement—this concession would amount to failure.
We developed the GNU operating system so that we could control our own
computers, and cooperate freely in using them in freedom. To seek
popularity for our software by ceding this freedom would defeat the
purpose; at best, we might flatter our egos. Therefore we have designed
version 3 of the GNU GPL to uphold the user's freedom to modify the
source code and put modified versions to real use.
The debate about the GPL v3 is part of a broader debate about DRM versus
your rights. The motive for DRM schemes is to increase profits for those
who impose them, but their profit is a side issue when millions of
people's freedom is at stake; desire for profit, though not wrong in
itself, cannot justify denying the public control over its technology.
Defending freedom means thwarting DRM.
First published by BusinessWeek Online.
Dr. Richard M. Stallman is the founder of the