Opinion: High-Definition Video--Bad For Consumers, Bad For Hollywood - InformationWeek
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Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow

Opinion: High-Definition Video--Bad For Consumers, Bad For Hollywood

Digital rights management gadgetry has turned high-definition video into a lumbering dinosaur that consumers won't want to buy. And a good thing, too--because Hollywood doesn't know what to do with HD, says Cory Doctorow.

The Broadcast Flag was adopted by the FCC and then struck down by a D.C. court that told the commission its jurisdiction stopped at the broadcasting tower and didn't extend to your living room. But the studios and the broadcasters continue to advance their plans for a high-def universe, and they continue to use HD as a Trojan horse for smuggling in mandates over the design of commodity electronics.

The first line of this is high-def media players, particularly games and the competing DVD specifications (to call them "standards" is an insult to honest standards), Blu-ray and HD DVD. These systems only output high-definition picture on their digital outputs, and those outputs are encrypted. To decrypt them on your TV, you need to get permission from the entertainment industry, and to get permission you have to make a bunch of wicked promises.

For example, you have to promise to honor region codes, those nuisances that try to restrict what country you can watch your lawfully purchased movies in. That's not about copyright: Copyright doesn't let an author tell you what country you can take his books to, or a director where you can watch his movies. It's just an arbitrary business model that the studios can impose with the force of law, just by scrambling their movies and making permission to descramble contingent on a manufacturer treating their business model as though it were law.

The new HD technologies include anti-user nasties like "renewability"--the ability to remotely disable some or all of the device's features without your permission. If someone, somewhere, figures out how to use your DVD burner to make copies of Hollywood movies, they can switch off everyone's burner, punishing a limitless number of innocents to get at a few guilty parties.

The HD DRM systems also include gems like "selectable output control"--wherein some programs will refuse to be played on some devices. As you flip up and down the dial, parts of your home theater will go dark. Creepier still is "authorized domain"--the ability to flag content so that it can only be played within a "household," where the studios get to define what is and isn't a valid living arrangement.

On top of these restrictions are the punishing "robustness" regimes that come with HD DRM systems. These are the rules manufacturers have to follow to ensure that the anti-user stuff in their devices isn't compromised. It's a requirement to add expensive armor to products that stop a device's owner from opening up her device to see what's inside and make changes. That's bad news for open source, of course, since open source is all about being able to look at, modify, and republish the code that runs a device.

But even if you don't care about open source, the cash and utility cost of compliance is a hardship. Sony's HD version of the PlayStation costs a whopping $100 more than the non-HD version, and Sony's first generation of Blu-ray DVD drives won't play Blu-ray movies because they can't get sufficient anti-owner countermeasures into the box. Microsoft's 32-bit version of Vista won't do HD, either.

Most extraordinary is the relationship of HD DRM to the world's largest supply of HD screens: LCD computer monitors. The vast majority of HD-ready, 1080i-capable screens in the world are cheapo computer LCDs. Chances are you've got a couple at home right now.

But unless these screens are built with crippleware HDMI or DVI interfaces, they won't be able to receive high-def signals. DRM standards call these legacy screens and treat them as second-class citizens.

All this may be enough to scuttle HD's future. Let's hope so, for Hollywood's sake.

Because, you see, HD is also poison for the entertainment industry's own products. The higher the resolution, the harder it is to make the picture look good. Standard-def programs on high-def screens look like over-compressed YouTube videos, and when you get a high-def program shot by traditional directors, it looks even worse, every flaw thrown into gaudy relief. Have a look at the HD-native episodes of Friends some day--it's all gaping pores, running pancake makeup, caked-on hairspray, and freakishly thin bodies with giant, tottering heads.

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