Diablog: Pray for DRM

My birthday's coming!

Ah, the annual birthday festival. Many nights of free dinners and gifts. I don't know how you get away with it.

Well, you're getting off easy. Take me to Giorgio's. Also, I want a DVD: The Hidden Blade, that samurai movie we both loved.

Done.

One more thing, Mark-chan. I want it in one of those new high-definition formats. What is it, Blu-way?

Blu-ray. And HD DVD. But that title isn't available in either of 'em.

Why not? I thought all video releases came in those new formats.

Unfortunately, not all.

Is this going to be like the digital audio transition, when we waited years and years for our favorite obscure albums to get released on CD?

Maybe.

What's the problem? Is it another one of those format wars?

Well, there is one, and that doesn't exactly help. We're seeing progress on that front with the arrival of the first combi player and some mutterings about hybrid discs. But if I were writing a State of the High-Def Disc report, it wouldn't be too optimistic. The people who keep track of these things count fewer than 200 disc releases in each format.

So? These formats have been in the U.S. market for less than a year.

It's nothing compared to the 3000 standard-def titles all six major studios have poured into Wal-Mart's brand-new download service. This is in part a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. We need to get more players into people's racks to justify the extra expense of releasing titles in new formats. We also have to grow the market for software before manufacturers give us the dirt-cheap players that have made DVD a mass-market success. But I can't help wondering if something else is niggling at the back of Hollywood's mind. And that is that hackers are attacking both of the new formats. This guy at ArsTechnica explains the situation pretty thoroughly.

Let me take a look. Oh, this is giving me a headache. Why don't you just give me the Cliff Notes version?

The new formats share a state-of-the-art digital rights management scheme called AACS, the Advanced Access Content System. It puts an encryption key in the player, and another one on the disc, and the player and disc have to perform a handshake every time you watch something. The hackers have found some of the hardware and software keys in both formats. But the encryption is dynamic, meaning it can be updated when something bad happens. Several current titles are compromised, but the keys can be changed for future titles. Even a single title can have multiple "randomized" keys. The studios haven't tried randomization yet but that seems like the next step. Also, Blu-way--er, Blu-ray--has an extra layer of protection that no one has cracked. And there are other encryption technologies waiting in the wings if the studios admit the defeat of AACS.

In other words, you won't be buying my birthday present from one of those peddlers on Canal Street.

Hey, I wouldn't have done that anyway! What do you take me for? I want these disc formats to succeed, and for that to happen, a supply of software is essential. But the major studios won't turn the current trickle of high-def releases into a gusher unless they have absolute confidence that the encryption works. If you were a movie executive, and you read about the antics of the Doom9 guys, how would you feel about putting your crown jewels at risk? The studios already make good money on regular standard-definition DVD. For them to get truly enthusiastic about a new format, ironclad DRM is a must. Anything that undermines DRM also undermines the prospects of Blu-ray and HD DVD. That's why the hackers worry me.

Those dirty little thieves!

I don't think stealing is the point where they're concerned. True, calling their DRM-busting applications "backup utilities" is disingenuous at best. But I think they're driven more by ideology, by a justifiable concern about the way both the movie and music industries have forced DRM down the throats of consumers and manufacturers. To get a quick idea of DRM's destructive potential, look at the way it has balkanized music downloads, rendering iTunes purchases unplayable in non-iPod players. In its most extreme forms, the DRM crusade would prevent you from ripping a CD for your iPod or TiVo-ing the Oscars for personal use. The hackers see themselves as digital warriors protecting legitimate consumer rights. Or digital samurai, if you will.

I've always thought hackers hack just for the sake of hacking.

True. They're part of the digital ecosystem. More often than not, the ones who are not actual criminals are even doing the world a favor by pointing out faults in security schemes. They're sort of like the friendly bacteria in your gut. Or the "good" cholesterol. I just wish they weren't quite so creative in this case.

Whose side are you on? You're sounding ambivalent.

I am. My readers, for the most part, don't like DRM. And I'm as fervent as anyone about fair-use recording and ripping and networking. But my readers and I also want to watch movies on high-def discs.

So where do you draw the line?

I draw the line at people who take camcorders into movie theaters to make poor-quality bootlegs, whether they end up on the street or on BitTorrent. I'm also not too thrilled about people who want to break the encryption, copy the content bit for bit, and sell it in the form of counterfeit goods. Such large-scale pirates really are criminals. They should go to jail.

So how do you protect content from bootleggers while retaining the right to use what you've bought in the way you want to use it?

That, in a nutshell, is why I'm ambivalent. But I think it's time to start distinguishing between good DRM and bad DRM. Or at least make the attempt. Bad DRM, like the proposed broadcast flag, has the potential to infringe on fair-use recording rights. If I couldn't record the Super Bowl--and archive the copy forever, as a hardcore football fan might wish to--I'd be furious. The Supreme Court OKed that kind of recording for personal use in the 1984 Betamax Decision and consumer advocates don't want to turn back the clock. At the same time, it's legitimate for the movie studios to protect high-def content from mass piracy. If Hollywood doesn't get what it wants, we won't get what we want--a high-def disc release of your samurai movie.

Oh, I want more than the samurai movie. I want everything on Blockbuster's rental shelves to be in high-def. It bugs me that I still can't go out to the store and rent a Blu-way for any title I want. Once you and I started watching primetime programming in HDTV, there was no turning back. Letterman and Leno are funnier on a wide screen, I don't know why, they just are. Saturday Night Live looks like a million dollars. Even the local evening newscast is going high-def in a lot of places. I want all movies to be sold on Blu-way!

Blu-ray. And HD DVD.

Whatever.

That makes two of us.

Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.

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