Hollywood vs. Its Customers

by on April 10, 2006 · 2 comments

A couple of months ago, I blogged about the pointless restrictions imposed by the latest video DRM schemes. Today, in the Washington Post, Rob Pegoraro writes about another digital video device that’s getting a “lukewarm reception.” It’s got similarly pointless restrictions:

Eight of these movies were also available in high-definition format for an extra $1 each–making MovieBeam the only way to rent a flick in high-def at the moment.

But you can only see that extra resolution if your HDTV is new enough to provide an HDMI digital input. And if it does, everything MovieBeam rents will look about as good–the receiver automatically “upconverts” every release to a high-definition resolution. (The MovieBeam box also includes analog component-video outputs, plus S-Video and composite jacks for older analog TVs.)

I wish he’d expanded on this a little bit, because the vast majority of HDTVs in homes today are not “new enough to provide an HDMI digital input.” For those poor saps who purchased an older HDTV. (and here “older” means roughly pre-2004), they’ll get no better quality than if they’d bought an old-fashioned low-def TV.

I’m sure the response of the HDMI folks would be that this is just a transitional issue–that once everyone’s upgraded to “secure” digital formats everything will work with everything else. But that’s not the way things are likely to shake out in the real world, at least not if they’re serious about preventing piracy. Because a DRM scheme is only as strong as its weakest link. As soon as someone finds a fatal flaw in a version X of HDMI, it will be necessary to cut off compatibility with that version to prevent that vulnerability from undermining the security of the whole scheme. Yes, there are provisions for firmware updating of compromised devices, but that will only work with certain kinds of security vulnerabilities, and what consumer wants to worry about whether he’s installed the latest firmware upgrade on his Blu-Ray player?

Fortunately, I don’t think Hollywood or the consumer electronics industry has the stomach for that kind of confrontation with their customers. More likely, after a few years of constant compatibility problems, they’ll come to their senses and scale back their DRM schemes to “speedbump” levels. They should focus on deterring casual copying while admitting that they’re not going to be able to slow down determined pirates.

Update: Mike at Techdirt notes that this is the second attempt at launching this service. The first version was a Disney-centric device that had even more irritating restrictions. It folded around this time last year.

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