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Copyright Files: Apple, HDCP and Consumer Confusion

hdcp copyright apple smallIf you want to irritate consumers, one way is to try and interfere heavy handedly with how they can use the product’s they’ve purchased.  An even more surefire way to rankle them and draw their wrath is to fail to disclose your  practices or cover them up.   

Sony BMG found this out the hard way with their now infamous “root kit”  music DRM fiasco in 2005. That violation of consumer trust brought them a tremendous amount of bad PR and plenty of time in front of a judge before the lawsuits were settled.  Electronic Arts currently, though to a lesser degree, is dealing with a similar parade of customer backlash thanks to their own poor disclosure over DRM. EA’s facing down a handful of class action lawsuits.

Now, it seems, Apple and other PC vendors could, if they’re not careful, get a foot partially snagged in a similar but far less toothy version of the same kind of bear trap too.

According to reports from Wired and Ars Technica, new Macbook computers have quietly been gifted a restrictive anti piracy technology called High Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) (or a related system called Display Port Content Protection (DPCP)). These technologies are DRM systems that add a layer of encryption to the distribution of some content between its source (your computer) and certain peripherals and displays (your external monitor).

In plain English, what HDCP or DPCP does is throw a combination lock around certain video streams before passing it to an external display.  Your TV or monitor,or projector, to display the content, must be capable of providing the right combination to unlock the footage.   The purpose of this is largely to plug what is euphemistically called “the analog hole” – that is, the vulnerability of digital content to reproduction once it’s been decoded for display.    

The problem is not all displays are HDCP enabled and even those which are may not negotiate the “handshake” properly.   Additionally, while HDCP/DPCP is only supposed to be applicable to high def streams, there are reports it’s blocking the delivery of standard definition programming too. 

With this DRM system on board, if a new MacBook owner tries to plug the computer in to a widescreen HD TV, there is a very real possibility that they’ll be surprised to find the movie they want to watch from iTunes won’t cross the digital bridge to be displayed.  They’ll be stuck watching it on the incredibly vivid but small laptop monitor.   Can you say: “Ugh oh!” A bunch of Apple customer’s are on their web forums.

In Apple’s defense, the problem with HDCP and DPCP is not uniquely theirs.  Apple’s far from alone in the use of the technologies. The FCC approved HDCP in 2004 and there are components of it in reportedly in Windows.  Other computer vendors, including Sony, are adding it to their products too.   In 2005, the European Information, Communications and Consumer Electronics Technology Industry Associations (EICTA) announced HDCP is a required component to use the European “HD Ready” label.

The thing is, whether its Macbook owners, or buyers of a new Sony VAIO, few consumers are aware of what HDCP is, let alone that it may present them with some compatibility issues if they try to bridge some video content from the computer to a bigger screen. There’s been very little disclosure or education.   That’s where things potentially can go bad. 

Here, realistically, it probably won’t be a big issue but there’s no reason it has to be an issue at all. As with EA’s SecuROM case, and other DRM fiasco’s in the past. Disclosure is everything.  Give the customer sufficient information and they’ll react by voting yay or nay with their wallets. Fail to inform them, or try to sneak one by, and they’ll likely react alltogether differently.

In addition to the HDCP/DPCP story, in other copyright/DRM related news….
Rumors and buzz continue to persist that Apple is talking with the major record labels about stripping away the encryption and making iTunes a proper DRM-Free zone.  CNET and other news outlets have been reporting that at least two, and possibly all three of the remaining Big Four labels holding out, are in discussions with Apple.  (Note: The Big 4 is Sony Music Entertainment aka Sony BMG, Universal, Warner Music and EMI.  EMI already offers DRM-Free music on iTunes).

As proven many times with Apple rumors, talks are often far removed from deals but the volume of high level buzz is enough to fuel realistic speculation that the DRM-tide could be changing.  It’s something to watch for.

Related Articles from Metue
Applevine: Sony Talking to Apple About Going DRM-Free
EA Faces Two More SecuROM Suits
DRM, EA and Spore
MPAA and Real Networks Battle Over DVD  Copying
Self Policing Copyright Online: Industry Activism
Minefields and time bombs: Glancing at Copyright
Sony Buys Bertelsmann’s  Share of  Sony BMG
Musical MySpace: Big Labels Join Up
Sony BMG to go DRM-Free with Amazon, EMI Sets Musical Agenda
DRM and the Shrinking List of Music Retailers


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