Digital Protection: Are You a Pirate or a Saint?

Are you and I a pirate or a saint?  Probably neither….but we’re all considered pirates by those wanting to protect content at all costs. Even at the cost of confused, upset and angry customers who are becoming increasingly reluctant to buy new devices and content.

This weekend I used Handbrake to take the National Geographic DVD Guns, Germs & Steel and rip it so I could put it on my new video iPod — mainly because I haven’t had time to sit in front of my TV for three hours and watch the DVD (though do have intermittent time when I’m holding my iPod and could watch this over time). To my delight and as a bonus to ripping this, I no longer had to SIT THROUGH THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PITCH at the start of each segment! Like many commercial DVD’s, the FBI Warning, previews and other content disallows fast forwarding or skipping to the start of the movie/content.

This behavior and ripping capability — and being able to use content you purchase on different devices — is exactly what the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and other digital protection schemes are attempting to stop or make so damn hard that it’s easier and cheaper to just buy the content or consumable like inket printer ink.

You aint’ seen nothin’ yet…and the restrictions around high definition video transport will make the music DRM issues look like child’s play.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is cumbersome yet even I can clearly see that something is needed or otherwise incentive to produce goes away. While most people agree that Apple hit the sweet spot with DRM, any DRM is problematic. Let me give you a real-world example of two smart people that had big issues with what is arguably the best and simplest implementation of DRM: Apple’s iTunes.

I was on a 3-way call with two guys that are in their early thirties, very technical, and see me as the technoweenie they can turn to as a last resort. They were calling me since they didn’t understand how to authorize multiple machines for their iPods. One guy has all PC’s, the other two PC’s and one Mac (the latter guys’ multi-computer authorization is a separate issue since the iPod has to work with one platform or the other…not both) but they just simply didn’t understand how to move music they’d paid for to other machines in their respective homes.

Luckily I had my laptop at the coffee shop I’m in and could fire it up, go to the Apple Support area and snag the articles about how to authorize multiple computers (and since I’ve been there before and done this myself, I knew where to look which would’ve taken them much longer). We walked through how to do it, copy music from one to the other, and other management issues. They still didn’t really understand it! Finally, I had them fire up their instant messenger client and I pasted the links to the articles within the IM client so they could each spend some quality time with the how-to’s themselves.

Again, these are really smart guys. When stuff like this happens with people who should be able to do this kind of thing easily, I come back to a question I ask frequently, “What the HELL does Joe SixPack do?”  Answer? Either do nothing, get pissed off or track down some technoweenie.

Apple controls the value chain of the iPod experience. When it comes to audio though, there are still DRM issues: Real, Microsoft, Yahoo all have their own directions and we can’t take advantage of anything else that’s available, but iTunes and the Music Store is still easier than anything else.


After talking with these guys about their iPod issues today, I was clicking through on my news aggregator and came upon this post about one guy that is taking advantage of the new Vongo service (or trying to). Again, quite a technical guy investing A LOT of time in managing the setup and having troubles with the DRM, but it made me connect the dots between audio DRM and what’s coming with video DRM.

There is already alot of jockeying for position and new DRM schemes happening with video as several top companies “pre-position” themselves in this new realm (delivering video over the internet). Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Apple are all scrambling to get out in front of the others to capture the market. Each has their own DRM and player scheme. Each their own approach. None of them interoperate.

To top it all off there are now hardware-based DRM initiatives and here’s a great example of what I’m seeing:  my bride and I are looking for a next generation HDTV (1080p) to buy and all I’m seeing is a lack of “pure” DVI input (standard PC digital video connectors so I could hook up my laptop to an HDTV and view photos, etc.) and “pure” HDMI interfaces. Instead, it appears that the new 1080p (and other new) HDTV displays are only going to have HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) connectors so that the digital output from a cable/satellite/nextgen-HD-DVD will be encrypted as it travels from device to display. This means that you — obviously a pirate — are restricted from capturing that video stream and recording it for use on another device…other than the HDTV.

The TiVO is another great example. There are about 15 shows/movies I have on my box. Can’t do anything but put my ass in front of the TV to consume them. No DVD copying. No copying to my video iPod. No transfer to my laptop. There have been numerous hacks to the TiVO box which can allow this, but I look at what my time is worth and it’s way too much work and futzing and there is NO WAY that Joe SixPack could ever do it.


I fully understand the content providers need to protect what they produce. My bride produces numerous publications (print, ebooks, etc.) that could easily be copied digitally and therefore we take steps to limit the possibility of copying (PDF ebooks that are HUGE in file size so it’s cumbersome to copy instead of instituting one of the many draconian PDF-based DRM schemes). Still, if there was a way to ensure we’d receive value for the value we produce and ensure that value (i.e., money) would flow to us,  we’d release more content digitally (and no, contrary to what many people think and write about, “Well just give it away and the people will come” is fine if you don’t have to make payroll!).

What if….

Access was provided to a piece of content regardless of its form?  With all the server-based automation possibilities, there’s no reason why Guns, Germs & Steel couldn’t have been available to me in video iPod resolution (320 x 240 pixels). You or I would buy a DVD (or buy “the title”) and we’d get a content code and have cross-type access to a variety of media types and forms. In this way, the DRM would be wrapped around the title itself vs. the delivery medium. This would be more of a subscription model analogous to buying cable or satellite access to all the channels — with premium ones or packages separate — but would allow me to access my account (on some yet-to-be-created content .org) and download digital content I’ve paid for in some other form.

Bottom line? If content producers want to make MORE money, then loosening restrictions and upselling people on multiple forms of the same, repurposed content (vs. trying to restrict every single piece of it) seems like a no-brainer to me.

This is a really hard problem with a lot of much smarter and more experienced minds working on it than mine. My only fear is that some scheme will come to light that ties identity management together with content so that you and I will have to be digitally “fingerprinted” on multiple devices in order to use content across them.

The Trusted Computing initiative, for example, could be a method to further tie computing devices (or chips inside of devices) to content, processes and methods.

As all of these new schemes proliferate, it’s the consuming public (most of whom are clueless) that suffers. Mark my words: restrictions are only going to become tighter and tighter as time goes on unless the content producers understand that access=profits.

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.