Matt's Mind

Monday, April 25, 2005

High Fidelity

Note: in this blog entry (actually a minor essay, sorry) I'll be using the term "HD DVD" to refer to both of the proposed next-generation high definition video standards: HD DVD and Blu Ray. And I'll be using the term "suits" as a friendly way of referring to MPAA and other music and movie industry middlemen.

So, it looks like HD DVD will have encryption up the wazoo, what a shock. Who would have thought the movie industry would react to the cracking of CSS with the cry of "if at first you don't succeed, just use more?"

They will of course have access to the finest minds money can buy, and indeed the likely encryption system for HD DVD looks pretty impressive - must have cost millions to develop (it's called AACS: see a short description of it on slashdot).

The AACS system guarantees that, if a key is cracked, instead of being forced to continue to produce discs that they know can be cracked (as is the case now in DVD-land), they can issue new keys, revoke player keys and distribute updates onto players via the HD DVD discs themselves. I'm told this sort of system is in use for satellite links, and hasn't been hacked yet.

Yes, the suits must shiver with delight when they consider that they'll finally be one step ahead of those pesky, copy-happy consumers.

Leaving aside the issue of why suits are so worried about small-time copying - the real pirates will continue to do what they've always done and use high-grade bit-for-bit copiers which defeat both CSS and the proposed systems - do they really expect this system to work in the presence of open platforms like Linux, where the last resort for copying is to simply hijack video and audio at the driver level?

Of course not. Encryption is only as strong as it's weakest link, and in order to make it impossible to copy on consumer-grade equipment they need to control your hardware and software from the top to the bottom. This even includes the cables that connect your components, like HDMI, which has anti-copy encryption built in. Because, otherwise you sneaky consumers will just hook your high definition HDMI connectors into a recording setup.

Open systems like Linux are impossible to "protect" from sneaky consumers. So don't expect HD DVD or Blu Ray on Linux any time soon. Or ever.

One of the things that made DVD one of the fastest-adopted consumer technologies ever was the synergy between PC's and DVD players. The massive market for DVD drives on computers helped make them extremely cheap very fast. Unfortunately for suitdom, the hosting of DVD players and their associated software on generic platforms made CSS open to attack from the inside, and it didn't take long to fall.

To be as successfully-adopted HD DVD also needs to ride the PC wave, but this time around, the suits think they can do it right and lock us thieving customers out properly.

But in order for cunning plan to work on the PC, they need a PC platform that is unhackable. Enter Palladium, or Next Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB), or whatever it gets called next when the populace figure out what the current obscure name actually entails. NGSCB, or its derivative, requires both "secure" PC software and hardware. Which means cryptographically protected from meddling by untrusted parties, i.e. you. You won't be able to write a driver or create any hardware for the system until you've handed over some serious money and signed away your first-born child to the consortium that controls the HD DVD standard. If you write a hacked driver that permits copying, you go to jail. If you leak a key, they revoke that key, and you go to jail. If they decide they don't like you for any reason at all, they revoke the key.

Nirvana for the suits is when your equipment will lock you out of doing anything but what they've prescribed you can do. Fair use goes out the window. So does competition: to publish titles and make hardware you'll need to sign up and pay a fee to get a key. And, if the current "forced" sections on some DVD's are any indication, once they've got more control we may well see ads on purchased HD-DVD's - all in high definition of course.

It may sound paranoid, and indeed I've been indulging in some worst-case speculation. Happily, reality tends to intrude even on the best-laid plans of mice and middlemen. There are two lights at the end of the tunnel, and they're not an oncoming car.

One roadblock is that the very existence of large numbers of Linux installations guarantees a market for non "secure" PC's. This means that suits, in collaboration with Microsoft and the various other usual robber barons of the PC world, cannot force the market by fiat to replace open platforms with "secured" ones. This still won't make HD DVD available on open platforms, but at least the rest of us will have a place to play and a platform for competitors to target.

The second roadblock is that HD DVD isn't quite the guaranteed winner that the suits are dreaming of. DVD was so wildly successful because it was simply a quantum leap from VHS - there is not a single way in which VHS is competitive with DVD. DVD's have a better picture and enormously better sound, are cheaper to produce, have smaller and more reliable media, allow easier navigation, can play in PC, sport nice friendly menus, and frequently ship with extra features and DVD-ROM goodies.

But when we go from DVD to HD DVD, the new format offers ... well, a better picture is about it. Given the current woeful penetration of HDTV's, this is not going to be a major selling point for some time. And even when (or if) the price of a decent HDTV drops below $1,500, the suits will need to wait until people retire their old TV's. DVD's didn't require retirement of old components to see benefits. To demonstrate an advantage, HD DVD's do.

The other problem is that people have consistently demonstrated that more is better: given the choice between higher quality and more, they'll take more - given the quality remains acceptable, and DVD certainly provides acceptable quality. So it's entirely possibly people will use HD DVD's as simply a larger DVD. Maybe two or three movies on a disc.

This more-is-better fact of human nature, plus the current high price of HDTV's and the inevitable initial high price of HD DVD units and movie titles, plus draconian DRM restrictions may doom HD DVD to stillbirth, or at best a minor niche in the cashed-up techno-geek market, similar laserdisc.

What's the alternative to next-generation uber DRM and pissed-off customers? Well, the suits could try something utterly crazy, like reduce the price of movie titles to the point where there's no point in anyone copying them. If HD DVD titles were, say, $10 I, for one, would never buy another blank disk again. When you take into account the amount of time and effort to make a copy plus the lack of cases and cover art, I'd pay $10 for the real thing over $1 for a bad copy any day.

The real problem is that the current usual DVD price of $25 is over the invisible line for which many people will make the effort to copy rather than buy. I buy maybe three DVD's a year simply because the ones I want to spend $25 on need to be guaranteed good, and the only ones in that category are ones I've already seen. Which means I only buy DVD's that are so good I'll see them 5+ times - otherwise it's just cheaper to hire them, which is my usual method of viewing. There are very few movies that I want to see 5 times, but there are quite a few that I'd like to see more than once, and which I'd pay $10 for. But, for most suits, I imagine a $10 standard price for a DVD is too scary to even consider.

Will HD DVD flop? Time will of course tell. In the meantime I, for one, won't be particularly worried if I have to stick with DVD's for while.

Further reading:

Next-Gen DVD Encryption: Better, but Won't Stop Filesharing

DVD Copy Protection: Take 2