My lack of connectivity last week kept me out of the latest round of the DRM debate. Chris Lanier started it with a very sensible post here. He makes the point that DRM is already a major part of the digital media ecosystem, and in fact most of it is practically invisible. If you watch digital cable TV, rent a DVD, subscribe to HBO, own a DirecTV or Dish satellite, or even drag out one of your old commercially released VHS tapes, you’re already dealing with DRM, and you probably don’t even notice.
Both Thomas Hawk (here) and Alexander Grundner (here and here, plus this related post) have jumped all over Chris with several passionate posts that essentially make three points (and I’m sure they’ll let me know if I’m oversimplifying):
Microsoft could support HDTV over cable any time they want to. The fact that they’re delaying this support is a stupid business decision and is bad for customers.
Microsoft is big enough to stand up to the bad guys in Hollywood. If they really cared about their customers, they would not give in to their demands for copy protection on HD content. In fact, Thomas asks rhetorically, “Would a better solution be to create a technology to capture a HDTV stream between the cable box and the TV, record it without restriction (remember BetaMax?), and fight the bastards in court? Would a better solution be to completely empower the consumer and scorch and burn the rest of Hollywood…?”
If Microsoft doesn’t preserve the open PC platform for high-definition video content, a competitor will. The most likely savior of the consumer and the open PC platform in this scenario is an open source solution for Linux.
Chris has had several follow-up posts (here and here), and there’s been a lot of discussion on various message boards about this. But these lofty philosophical and theoretical discussions so far have ignored the two elephants in the room:
CableLabs. Premium content over cable is encrypted. That’s why only a closed box (your cable company’s digital converter or an approved DVR sold by your cable company) can currently decode an HDTV signal from cable. If you want your PC (regardless of what OS it’s running) to record premium HDTV, you need hardware, and that hardware must be approved by CableLabs. You also need the cable company’s active participation in the process, because every CableCARD-equipped device is individually addressable. In a post on this site about a month ago, I provided links to all the CableLabs documents on how the approval process works, and I noted that a wave of testing of PC-compatible devices is due to complete in August.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act. I’m amazed no one has mentioned this. The law is repugnant, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation makes a pretty convincing argument that it’s unconstitutional. But I have no faith in the current Supreme Court to overturn it, and unless that happens the DCMA is the law of the land. Those who say that Microsoft (or an open source competitor) should just say “Screw Hollywood, we’re giving you unrestricted, DRM-free HDTV” really need to read Section 1201. Circumvention of copyright protection systems. The civil and criminal penalties could put any company, even Microsoft, out of business. Just ask 321 Studios.
Look, if Microsoft or MythTV or Beyond TV or TiVo could get HDTV content into their platform, they would have done it long ago. Arguing that this is an epic battle of good versus evil without considering the technical and legal factors makes the debate meaningless.