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TinotopiaLog → Unpredictable DRM ( 6 Jan 2005)
Thursday 06 January 2005

Unpredictable DRM

‘DRM’ means digital rights management, which is in turn a euphemism for ‘crippling consumer electronics so as to protect dubious future revenue streams while seriously endangering current ones’.

I’ve written elsewhere about the idiocy and myopia of the copyright industry, so I’m not going to get into that at any length here.

DRM, though — particularly the kind we’re seeing from TiVo and Windows Media Center Edition these days — is another perfect example of the micro-unpredictability of modern American life.

Here’s part of an e-mail that was quoted in an article at The Enquirer:

Turns out that a couple of days ago, HBO started encrypting all of its programs with CGMS-A. They allow you to “copy” a program that you record from their signal once. The trouble is that they consider that one-time copy to be recording the program onto your hard drive, not taking it from the hard drive to a DVD. THAT SUCKS OUT LOUD and I am extremely angry, as you can imagine. The files are HUGE and, even though I have a 200 gb hard drive, I can’t keep them there forever. MediaCenter records tv shows with a dvr.ms extension

So the capabilities of your equipment can change, now, after you’ve bought it. We’re actually used to this, to an extent: every few months, Apple releases a software update that (sometimes drastically) changes the capabilities of my computer. But in those cases the capabilities of my computer increase.

This week, news came out of a system called ‘Video Content Protection System’, which is aimed at further restricting what you can do with ‘content’.

“The primary goal if you read FCC regulations is to create a situation where it is not possible to randomly, indiscriminately distribute content over something,” said Kevin Saldanha, HP’s DVD+RW program manager, speaking at a press conference here. For example, the system is designed to prevent users watching a locally “blacked out” football game in New York from viewing a video stream sent to them from friends in California, who are not subject to the blackout restrictions. […] The new discs will be somewhat more expensive than their DRM-free counterparts […] Likewise, the new players will probably be priced somewhat higher than conventional players […]

So the copyright industry proposes to increase my costs and, ultimately, obsolete my existing investment in gadgets, not so that I can have some new capability, but so capabilites that I have today can be taken away. And for what? To make sure that people don’t watch ‘blacked out’ football games? They have got to be insane.

When you buy something, particularly a piece of electronic gear, you do a calculation in your head that ultimately produces what business-school types call the net present value to you of all the future use of the purchase.

But with ever-more-‘innovative’ DRM, though, you can’t really do that calculation, because in the middle of the equation there’s a big cloud with a question mark on it: this cloud represents the whims of the copyright industry. When buying equipment that’s possibly subject to this dynamic DRM, you have to do some mental calculations based not only on how useful you think the gadget is going to be, but on how likely it is that its capabilities are going to change to your detriment in the future. And that you can’t predict at all, because it’s all about the decisions of people high up in an industry famous for mercurial decision-makers, heavy cocaine use, and all-around flakiness.

I am actually pretty sanguine about DRM as a whole. The market will ultimately reject anything that gets in the way of ordinary use: note that the only downloadable-DRM’d-music scheme that’s had any success at all — and even this is pretty modest — is Apple’s iTunes Music Store. Tracks from the iTMS are DRM’d, but in a way that most users will never notice (if you’re not Cory Doctorow, anyway). In any case, the iTMS DRM is almost trivial to defeat if you really want to.

In the end, all the Broadcast Flag and incompatible DVD standards are going to do is what DVD region-coding did: slow down the adoption of new technologies, and increase everyone’s cost by introducing enormous amounts of inefficiency into the system. The consumer-electronics companies will manufacture thousands or millions of these new devices with features that nobody but the copyright industry wants, and nobody will buy them. The consumers will pay for them, of course, in the form of higher prices for the next wave of devices, the devices that will actually reliably do what their purchasers want.

Such is it with all unpredictability in the marketplace. Most industries at least think that they’re working hard to make things more reliable and predictable; only the copyright industry and their consumer-electronics lapdogs are actively working to move things in the other direction.

Posted by tino at 16:02 6.01.05
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I highly doubt that this action will sell more DVDs of The Sopranos. People who have the patience to record all the DVDs themselves will probably be too mad at this change to actually buy the DVDs. Heck, I’m thinking I shouldn’t buy them in solidarity with these screwed folks. Of course, the last season left something to be desired anyway. Extensive use of dream sequences = jumping the shark?

The region-code thing is ludicrous. I fail to see why you can’t just walk into Best Buy and say “I have region-1 and region-2 DVDs. Can you show me a DVD player that will work for me?” No, of course not because this door is locked for no reason.

Posted by: Nicole at January 6, 2005 05:01 PM