NBC Claims Latest DRM (Broadcast Flag) Trainwreck 'Inadvertent'

If you followed any of my coverage of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology over on ZDNet (before I jumped ship to TechWeb and <i>InformationWeek</i>), then you'll know that I have a different acronym for DRM. I call it C.R.A.P. Originally, <a href="http://news.zdnet.com/2036-2_22-6035707.html">I thought</a> CRAP could be expanded to mean Content Restriction Annulment and Protection. But the Free Software Foundation's spiritual leader Richard Stallman <a href="http://blogs.zdnet.com/BTL/?p=

David Berlind, Chief Content Officer, UBM TechWeb

May 21, 2008

6 Min Read

If you followed any of my coverage of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology over on ZDNet (before I jumped ship to TechWeb and InformationWeek), then you'll know that I have a different acronym for DRM. I call it C.R.A.P. Originally, I thought CRAP could be expanded to mean Content Restriction Annulment and Protection. But the Free Software Foundation's spiritual leader Richard Stallman asked that it stand for Cancellation, Restriction, And Punishment instead. ZDNet's readers concurred and who am I to argue? Today we have yet another tale of why DRM technology is so deserving of being called CRAP.For those who don't know, CRAP is the technology that's responsible for making sure that a song you buy at Apple's iTunes Music Store (iTMS) doesn't work as easily on a standard MP3 player as it does on an iPod or an iPhone. That's not the only example (and I should point out that not all of the content available through the iTMS is protected).

Vendors of CRAP like to argue that they're just doing what they're obligated to do by their contracts with content providers (e.g.: the record labels). Theoretically, in the same way that CRAP prevents you from making copies of your content to be used on your other devices (e.g.: copying a song originally intended to be played on an iPod over to your BlackBerry), it prevents a more public version of the same "piracy" over the Internet through file-sharing services.

But CRAP also is what what secures the long-term revenue of technology vendors. For example, if you've purchased 1,000 songs from the iTMS, there are ways you can play them back through non-Apple technologies. But it's so painful for most mortals (relative to the ease of buying a song on the iTMS and playing it seconds later on your iPod) that, when their iPods or iPhones break, they'd rather just buy another iPod than try to figure out how to move the music over to another device that they'd really rather have (perhaps because some company finally out-innovated Apple). CRAP is a therefore a lock-in technology. It's a proprietary razors and blades architecture (just like with ink jets and cartridges). The only difference is that the blades (the content) never wear out. It's the razors that occasionally need replacement and this is what secures the long-term revenue of companies that marry a proprietary DRM scheme to their technologies.

Some vendors say it's not so. That this isn't about locking customers into their playback technologies. But if that's the case, they'd agree to an interoperable CRAP standard that worked across vendors and, wouldn't you know? There's no interest in doing that. In fact, after licensing one version of its digital rights management technology to a bunch of vendors (in hopes of cracking the iTunes/iPod ecosystem) and failing with that strategy, Microsoft came up with another one for itself (that it doesn't license and is found in Microsoft's Zunes, the latest answer from Microsoft to Apple's iPod fortunes).

CRAP comes in all forms and the tentacles of the CRAP ecosystem stretch far and wide. It's in the a la carte music and videos we license (that's right ... you don't own the content you buy ... you've only got a license to use it). It's embedded in our legal system whereby circumvention of CRAP is punishable by law. It's embedded in our society where lobbyists conduct witch hunts of file sharing 12-year olds and their parents. It's also embedded in our cable TV system (which is why, one day, many of us won't be able to use the TVs we currently own to watch TV).

The latest CRAP trainwreck (I like to keep track of these trainwrecks on My Del.icio.us) has to do with an apparently errant application of the infamous broadcast flag. The Wikipedia's summary of how CRAPpy the broadcast flag is works for me:

A broadcast flag is a set of status bits (or a "flag") sent in the data stream of a digital television program that indicates whether or not the data stream can be recorded, or if there are any restrictions on recorded content. Possible restrictions include the inability to save an unencrypted digital program to a hard disk or other nonvolatile storage, inability to make secondary copies of recorded content (in order to share or archive), forceful reduction of quality when recording (such as reducing high-definition video to the resolution of standard TVs), and inability to skip over commercials.

Theoretically, outfits like NBC shouldn't be sending any content into our cable boxes with the flag enabled. And, even more theoretically, the "terminating" gear on the other end shouldn't be responding to the broadcast flag even if it happens to be present. But according to Engadget:

....some Vista Media Center users have apparently gotten the above pop-up (click thru to Engadget to see the photo) while trying to record broadcast TV from NBC. Since the FCC regulation giving the broadcast flag its power to remotely disable your recording ability was overturned, not only should it not be enabled, there's no reason the system should respond if it were...

Yeserday, came the update in which NBC admitted the flag's inadvertent use. But there was still no explanation for why everything worked so "well":

NBC has copped to an "inadvertent mistake" in flagging the broadcast of American Gladiators as content prohibited from recording, while Microsoft stated it is only following the FCC's rules, and "fully adheres to flags used by broadcasters"...for such a "feature" to be buried within one's software unknowingly is troubling.

The story is somewhat reminiscent of a so-called "bug" in TiVo boxes that was prematurely expiring recorded content. Imagine finally getting around to watching that episode of Deadliest Catch that you recorded (I wouldn't be caught dead watching American Gladiators) and finding that it had been automatically groomed from your TiVo's hard drive, thanks to CRAP? Expiration management is another function of CRAP. If, for example, the publisher of some content wants to allow you to record it, but only wants you to be able to retain that recording for 3 months, that's one of the alleged benefits of CRAP to content publishers.

But, as can be seen from these examples, CRAP is really like an insect infestation. Once it gets in, it's nearly impossible to rout out.

Thanks to InformationWeek reader Derek Flickinger for passing this along. See also: Why Brandon LeBlanc says Microsoft's Zune leads the way in terms of DRM reform. According to LeBlanc, DRM-free songs that are downloaded from the iTunes Music Store will also work on his Microsoft Zune even though they are in the .AAC format used for playback on iPods and iPhones. That's a cool feature.

About the Author(s)

David Berlind

Chief Content Officer, UBM TechWeb

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