the DRM drama, act VII


In legal documents in its federal case against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who kept a collection of about 2,000 music recordings on his personal computer, the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.

The industry’s lawyer in the case, Ira Schwartz, argues in a brief filed earlier this month that the MP3 files Howell made on his computer from legally bought CDs are “unauthorized copies” of copyrighted recordings.


In 2007, 83.9 million albums were sold, down 21.4 million from last year. A 20 percent drop in sales is more than a blip; it’s serious trouble.

The industry has been under pressure for years, of course. Back in August, we took a detailed look at trends in the movie, music, and video game businesses and noted that RIAA companies have seen sales drop by 11.6 percent between 2002 and 2006, even as movies hold steady and games are showing sales increases.


the Warner Music Group said on Thursday that it would sell songs and albums without anticopying software through Amazon’s fledgling digital music service. […] Warner is the third of the four major music corporations to reconsider its use of so-called digital rights management software, known by its initials as D.R.M., and offer its catalog in the unrestricted MP3 format. […] EMI Group broke ranks with the other major labels and agreed to sell unprotected music through iTunes in April.

Now, some music executives are privately backing the idea of dropping the software from music sold through virtually every service except iTunes, in order to strengthen Apple’s rivals and potentially diminish Mr. Jobs’s advantage. The major labels have been upset with Apple’s inflexibility on music pricing, among other issues.

Warner’s move comes roughly four months after the industry’s biggest company, Universal Music Group, part of Vivendi, said it would sell music without restrictions through an array of services, including digital stores run by Wal-Mart, Real Networks and Amazon, but not iTunes.


Apple and Fox have indeed (finally) agreed on an iTunes movie deal, and while details are admittedly scant at the moment, chances are Stevie J. will get to the nitty gritty come Macworld. What we do know, however, is that the alleged partnership will enable iTunes users to rent new Fox DVD releases and keep them around “for a limited time,” though pricing figures weren’t speculated upon. Additionally, it sounds like Fox will be spreading its digital file inclusion from select titles to all flicks, giving DVD purchasers a FairPlay protected file that can easily be transferred (read: without third-party transcoding software) to a computer and / or iPod for later viewing.

Apple is betting on the wrong horse here. I’m coming around to the view that Steve Jobs’ famous anti-DRM letter was just a negotiating tactic and didn’t represent any genuine pro-fair-use sentiment.

robots and rootkits

Toyota wants Sony’s robotics expertise:

According to the AP, the two companies will be working together to develop an “innovative, intelligent, single-seat vehicle” as part of a deal that stems from Toyota’s acquisition of various Sony technology and patents earlier this year. Under the new partnership, seven Sony researchers have started to work temporarily in Toyota’s robot research unit, helping Toyota make sense of the technology.

Cue the Aibo/DRM jokes.

I choose HD-DVD

A few days ago, HeadGeek at AICN declared he’d taken sides in the nextgen-DVD format war: he chose HD-DVD. I am inclined to follow his lead. At present I am in no position to purchase a HDTV (without which the choice of DVD format is moot), but I am confident enough in HD-DVD to make the decision well in advance.

There are a number of reasons why HD-DVD makes more sense. The fundamental reason, however, is simple: HD-DVD is backwards-compatible with standard DVD. Couple this with the fact that I will have to buy a new DVD player anyway once I upgrade to HDTV (which will be mandatory as of February 17th, 2009). My aging DVD player doesn’t support progressive scan, so watching DVD movies with my old player on a new HDTV would be masochistic. I anticipate that my TV viewing will be driven more by Blockbuster and BitTorrent than by broadcast, so the choice of DVD player becomes even more important. With a single box that supports upscaling like the Toshiba HD-A2 ($250 at Amazon), I get the full benefits of the HD resolution with my existing DVD library as well as any HD content I might be inclined to rent.

The other primary factor is cost. HD-DVD is simply cheaper, and maintains a healthy price advantage over Blu-Ray even despite recent moves by Sony to reduce the price. The irony here is that while BR players are overpriced now, they are likely to become very cheap in the future, because you can always get one at a subsidized cost by buying a Playstation 3. So there’s even more incentive to wait. The price of any gaming console is guaranteed to drop over time; witness that the PS2 now sells for $129. If at some point I do decide that I want a BR version of Lion King (Disney is exclusively BR), I’ll go and buy a PS3 and get maximum value; I anticipate we will see the PS3 at the $300 price point within a few years, especially as the Wii and XBox continue to clean Sony’s clock.

Much has been made of the fact that Blu-Ray enjoys wider studio support, but if there ever really is a movie truly exclusive to BR that I must have, I still can buy the standard DVD and upconvert on the A2, or I can bittorrent it down and watch on my HDTV (DRM on both formats is irreversibly compromised). But how likely is that anyway? Given that King Kong is out on HD-DVD, I’m not worried about Lord of the Rings following suit; and I’m enough of a purist about Star Wars that if Lucas gets his head out of his arse and gives me the Original, Unedited Trilogy (i.e., Han shoots first, etc) then that’s worth buying a PS3 for. Later. I can wait.

All the debate about which format is winning, based on sales, is essentially bogus anyway. The actual numbers of players sold is so insignificant thus far that any advantage enjoyed by one or the other is illusory and can’t be used to predict the longer-term trend. So I’m not worried about being locked into a “losing” format like BetaMax – again, at a bare minimum I will have backwards, upscaling compatibility with my existing DVDs. As far as I am concerned, the “format war” is just hype.

And anyway, Sony is evil. Some things you just can’t forgive.

Why is this so hard to understand?

Ars takes the new BitTorrent video store for a spin and finds unsurprisingly that DRM renders it useless. Off the top of my head,here’s what a genuinely successful online video store is going to require:

Intuitive. The interface should be identical to NetFlix, with genres down one side and a search box. A Queue functionality should be a given, with options to “subscribe” to shows.

Comprehensive. Every TV show that is currently broadcast or on cable should be available. Movies should have simultaneous release on the big screen and at the online store.

Value. No more than $1 per 30 min for movies, $1 an hour for TV. Hot picks or new releases could reasonably go double or triple that rate within a short time window, say three to four weeks. The price could decrement in stages over that time frame. Allow users to get a discount on TV show downloads if they opt for included TV commercials (which will be formatted as part of the content chapters, so they cant be skipped on the DVD burn). The purists can pay full price for the ad-free version. For movies, give the user a discount coupon for the soundtrack CD or a free movie rental at Blockbuster or Hollywood Video as a freebie (give those chains free ad space to cover their costs). Permit the user to apply discounts/pay a premium for higher or lower resolutions (ie, 50% for iPod or 150% for BluRay).

Burn to DVD. The vast, vast majority of video is seen on consumers’ expensive TV sets. Its still very rare for people to have a PC next to the TV set, and will be rare for a long time. HD-DVD and BluRay, not to mention the mandatory upgrade cost of HDTV for everyone within the next year or two, means that people have enough new media hardware to spend money on.

And what about DRM? First, let’s acknowledge reality: all DRM schemes are bogus to begin with.

Second: what Steve said. But more importantly: recognize that the lack of protection on audio CDs has not impeded sales. Note that you can burn iTunes tracks to CD as well. Theres no reason that burning to DVD would result in any threat to the studios’ revenue streams; in fact, I’d be able to burn a disc of great scifi show episodes and get my friends hooked. We could share video discs the way we did with mix tapes and CDs. The lack of any need for DRM on the files would also mean less overhead and increase profits to the studios directly.

Have I missed anything? If the studios build this, the consumers will come. Ultimately we shouldn’t even be wasting our broadcast spectrum on television; it should all be wired.

One key to rule them all

Using only a retail copy of the King Kong HD-DVD and an XBox-360 DVD drive, a hacker reverse-engineered the copy-protection for both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs. They did it not by cracking the code but by simply tracking data as it moved between the disc and system memory.

UPDATE: There’s a lengthy essay and rumination on DRM issues at Kaedrin weblog, which I recommend in particular to interested readers arriving via Meta Filter.