DRM and the myth of the 'analog hole'

The movie studios want to punish legitimate customers with quarter resolution high definition video to force them away from analog video connectors and to buy new TVs that support copy protection. The problem is that real pirates don't care about analog video because it's easier to steal content digitally.
Written by George Ou, Contributor on

There seems to be a persistent myth floating around the board rooms of the movie companies and Congress that analog content is the boogie man of music and video piracy.  In fact they're so paranoid about it that they're considering a mechanism called ICT (Image Constraint Token) that punishes law-abiding customers for content that they legally purchased.  DRM... has to be better quality and easier to use than bootleg content or consumers won't accept it. It isn't even for something bad that they've done, but for something they theoretically might do which is to copy an HDTV movie at maximum 1920 by 1080 resolution using an analog video connector that doesn't have copy restrictions built in.  But ironically, the real content pirates who make millions of bootleg movies have no intention of ever taking advantage of the so called "analog hole" because that is the slowest and lowest quality method of stealing content.  The victim is the consumer who's only crime is that he couldn't afford the latest HDTV set with an HDMI content-protected connector so he or she gets punished with quarter-resolution 960 by 540 output while paying for high definition 1920 by 1080 (1080p or 1080 progressive) content.

Copying high definition 1080p content over an analog signal is very expensive, time consuming, and prone to quality loss during the conversion even without ICT restrictions.  Even if there was no way to make a high-speed bit-for-bit digital copy directly in a computer because of some DRM mechanism, there will always be some way for determined crackers to intercept unprotected digital content before it's delivered to the video output device.  It is simply naive to think that any music or video pirate professional or casual is going to use the so called "analog hole" to pirate content and even dumber to pass laws that make maximum quality analog connectors illegal.  Most new HDTV sets don't even have HDMI connectors let alone older HDTV sets so if ICT enforcement is ever adopted, almost everyone will be negatively affected.  Most movie companies with the exception of Warner Brothers have already indicated that they would not initially implement ICT because they realize that they would have an uproar because so many people would be adversely affected.  But in the future when enough HDMI-capable HDTV sets are on the market, there is no guarantee that the movie companies won't try to sneak ICT enforcement in to future releases.

To prove the point that the analog issue or even DVD encryption is moot, anyone who's visited a relatively modern third world country will have seen the $1 bootleg DVDs lining the market.  Those bootleg DVDs didn't get there because someone used an "analog hole" nor did they get there because some pirate used a decryption algorithm that may have been printed on someone's T-Shirt. They got there because someone simply made a bit-for-bit copy of the original DVD.  There is nothing unique or special about a DVD (or HDDVD or Blueray disk) and it could simply be replicated and mass produced verbatim.  But anyone who wanted to make a legitimate backup of their own legal DVD collection because they may have small children who have talent for shredding DVDs wasn't allowed to because the software was made illegal.  Perhaps the movie companies are trying to stop casual copying but obviously all their efforts have not worked because it's easy as ever to copy and backup a DVD without ever resorting to expensive and imprecise analog video --  so what's the point to ICT?

I'm not against the concept of DRM and I view it as a balancing act between the rights of the content creators and the rights of the consumers.  At the very least, the music and movie industry need to recognize that they cannot step on their customers rights and expect them to remain loyal paying customers regardless of where the law stands because consumers will either stop buying or simply bypass the restrictions.  If we as a society are going to tolerate DRM, it should at least be open enough to allow competing vendors to play even if there is no official standard.  Apple for example is notorious for abusing their dominant status in the online music business and will sue anyone who dares to be compatible with iTunes.  Apple controls the playback and the distribution of digital music and they're not about to give that up without a fight.  Consumers must be able to make legitimate backups and transport their legally acquired content on any device they choose.  Ultimately it won't matter what the laws on DRM are because it has to be better quality and easier to use than bootleg content or the consumers won't accept it.

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