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Why HDCP Sucks; Apple, Are You Listening?

By - Source: Tom's Hardware US | B 54 comments

Let's get straight to the point: HDCP (High-bandwidth digital content protection) sucks--and so does copy protection in general.


Originally developed to prevent people from copying high definition movies, HDCP has become more invasive to the user experience than it has to help promote the distribution of high-definition content. There's a clear reason for this: copy protection schemes hurt the honest user more than it does the pirate. In fact, piracy isn't affected by content copy protection schemes at all. To put it blatantly, pirates and crackers will find a way to circumvent a protection technology sooner than later, and it's usually no trouble for them. People who cheat the system, will cheat it no matter what.

Several years ago, I wrote a series of articles on DailyTech, where I was previously senior editor. The articles focused on HDCP and ATI (at the time), and how ATI was claiming that its cards were fully "HDCP ready." This was simply not true. Suffice to say, after posting my articles, ATI scrambled and attempted to modify its website to be a little more vague on verbiage. Not one to stand for the deception, I immediately posted a follow-up with Google-cached screenshots of ATI's specifications page. It was clear that, at the time, HDCP-marked video cards from ATI weren't HDCP-compliant at all.

Consequently, ATI didn't want to talk to me anymore after I wrote those articles. ATI was very irate about my articles, since it landed the company a lawsuit. ATI did eventually attempt to resolve the situation. Nvidia was free of the same problems because it didn't make boards, its partners did. The same couldn't be said for ATI. Box artwork from both ATI and its partners all had the HDCP compliant label on them. Since HDCP requires a hardware key embedded on graphics card during manufacturing, there was no going back either.

At the time, it was known that if you did not own an HDCP capable display and video card, high definition content would be locked out, displaying either a black box or being displayed in low resolution. This was a big thing during Vista's release.

An article on Gizmodo this morning, reminded me just how bad copy-protection technology has become. This week, Apple enabled purchasing of high-definition movies from its iTunes store. Previously, you were only able to rent the movies, but this week, you can now buy to own. Why is this an important distinction? Because, I for one, would like to be able to play the movies I own at any time, anywhere. I think this is true for everyone.

Here's the problem though: unless you own a HDCP compliant display, be prepared to watch your high-definition movies in crappy standard definition or nothing at all. iLounge points to a solution of using an older Mac to play back your movies. I'm not sure if this applies to iTunes running on Windows, but I am guessing that the problem exists here as well. Although more and more HDCP displays are becoming available, the display is the part of a computer system that gets upgraded least frequently.

HDCP is the bane of movie watchers--there's no two ways about it. Let's even go out on a limb here and say that problems like this, contribute more to piracy than not. If you have a non-HDCP compliant system, you can't buy the high-definition movies even if you wanted to.

Of course, HDCP isn't the only invasive technology out there. Disc copying schemes and DRM, are all part of a poorer user experience. Some copy protection schemes have even caused damage to a user's operating system to the point that a complete reinstall was necessary to fix. In all honesty, we don't condone piracy, but with problems like these, it's no wonder that piracy is as prevalent as it is. To Apple's credit, it has gone DRM-free with music on iTunes, but not until you've coughed up more money for the tunes you've already purchased. If this is going to happen with movies on iTunes, then expect people to be upset--again.

To companies out there that are all over content protection: it's generally an invasive technology. You're only hurting the overall user experience of your honest customers. If you haven't realized, software piracy is rising (PDF warning), not declining. And this is caused by a combination of bad user experience, causing otherwise honest people to look for alternatives, made by people who know that copy protection is a hassle: your own customers.

To Apple: iTunes is definitely the market maker out there in terms of content distribution. From music to movies, it's the top service. News like this though, don't help your cause, especially when you're trying to appease to the crowd here, on Tom's Hardware. With ads boasting about great life style, user experience, and how "everything just works," this is a slap in the face.

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  • 23 Hide
    ethaniel , March 20, 2009 7:28 PM
    I completely agree. You buy an original movie, and you're still treated like a thief. Terrible.
  • 21 Hide
    gwolfman , March 20, 2009 6:53 PM
    Quote:
    Because, I for one, would like to be able to play the movies I own at any time, anywhere. I think this is true for everyone.
    Count me in!
  • 20 Hide
    afrobacon , March 20, 2009 7:22 PM
    This is one of the better articles I've seen at Tom's. Well thought out, supporting arguments, minimal spelling/grammar mistakes; and I agree 100%. Keep up the good work.
Other Comments
  • 21 Hide
    gwolfman , March 20, 2009 6:53 PM
    Quote:
    Because, I for one, would like to be able to play the movies I own at any time, anywhere. I think this is true for everyone.
    Count me in!
  • 8 Hide
    gwolfman , March 20, 2009 6:54 PM
    Sorry for double post, but in addition to ^^^^^ I would like to add: "any way" or by any means
  • 19 Hide
    justsomeone , March 20, 2009 7:06 PM
    Tuan, nice job on calling these companies out on this crap!
  • 20 Hide
    afrobacon , March 20, 2009 7:22 PM
    This is one of the better articles I've seen at Tom's. Well thought out, supporting arguments, minimal spelling/grammar mistakes; and I agree 100%. Keep up the good work.
  • 23 Hide
    ethaniel , March 20, 2009 7:28 PM
    I completely agree. You buy an original movie, and you're still treated like a thief. Terrible.
  • 13 Hide
    Anonymous , March 20, 2009 7:35 PM
    Ive had two expierences with DRM this path month that have utterly pissed me off.

    The first, was a retail copy of devil may cry 4. This game no matter what i treid would lock up and crash my computer every time i tried to play it. The demo worked perfectly. After much trial and error i found out the culprit was the DRM, securom. After downloading a cracked copy of the game executable i could play what i actually payed for.

    The second ws 2 days ago, with windows media player. It was trying to obtain a license to play a video and that was the last i heard of that windows istall. As soon as it tried to do this i lost my internet connection on that machiene(the others on my network all worked fine). On a reboot the computer refused to boot, in the end i had to do roll back the computer to a backup to get it to load again.

    This is a machine that had NEVER crashed or locked up prior to these 2 issues.
  • -2 Hide
    zhelkus , March 20, 2009 7:36 PM
    This topic is related to another theme where software giants just want you to use their product their way because "everything just works" that way. Everything just works... my ass!

    iTunes and many Mac products may be more stable than M$ counterparts but they're meant to be used one way only, just like copy-protected material stated in this article. When will you see iTunes as customizable as Foobar? Never! Lost you iTunes library due to a hard drive move? Sucks to be you (me :(  )!
  • 11 Hide
    tuannguyen , March 20, 2009 7:52 PM
    joebob2000Why wasnt this a QOTD: "How much do you hate copyright enforcement, and why?"I think it's a given that anyone besides those who make money off of copyrights (i.e. the creator and the middlemen) would love to see copyright protection go away, since it adds 0 to their experience and in many cases it makes it harder/more expensive to enjoy media that they paid good money for.Won't someone think of the copyright holder's children? Let's face it, if we had a world where your only incentive to produce music/movies/etc. was getting famous and you didn't get the piles of cash that go along with that in the current system, we would have a different but equally frustrating media system to deal with.Just to name one hypothetical, imagine going to your local music store to find that they no longer stocked material based on any rhyme or reason, nor did they coordinate their inventory to resemble any other store. You get to sift through thousands of CDs stacked floor to ceiling, most of them containing utter crap and very rarely do they contain a gem. Oh, sure, you could just hop on nap-tune-zaa and download the music from them, but it's a riddle of millions of different filenames, rarely organized by artist or album, with no way of knowing what other people liked aside from the download count, which may tell you it's a popular song or it may tell you it's a video of a cat doing a backflip that got blogged about a million times.Is that what you want?


    Hi joebob2000 -

    Thanks for the response. Although you have a point, I think the main concern is is the invasive user experience that comes with copy-protection schemes. Piracy has gone up, in part, due to the wide-spread use of online access, but that's on the surface. We have an easy way to get media combined with harder to use media we own, creates this need to be simpler.

    There's a difference between pirating software, and what my article is about. The point I was trying to make was that troublesome copy schemes don't affect piracy, it adds to it. When copy protection schemes weren't around, there was already piracy. Then came the Internet, which made getting media easier. Piracy went up. The companies were like "Oh no," and produced endless copy protection schemes. Piracy went up.

    This tell you two things:

    1. Pirates aren't affected by copy protection schemes.
    2. Consequently, only honest users who want to play what they own in the way they want to, are the only ones affected.

    Because I don't have an HDCP LCD, I can't buy the movies from iTunes. I would love to, but since I can't play them, why bother? Sadly, I am at a loss, and I can't be Apple's customer even if I wanted to. What do I have to do? Replace my 30-inch LCD for one that is HDCP compliant? No thanks. Frustrating.

    / Tuan
  • -3 Hide
    joebob2000 , March 20, 2009 8:08 PM
    tuannguyenHi joebob2000 -Thanks for the response. Although you have a point, I think the main concern is is the invasive user experience that comes with copy-protection schemes. Piracy has gone up, in part, due to the wide-spread use of online access, but that's on the surface. We have an easy way to get media combined with harder to use media we own, creates this need to be simpler.There's a difference between pirating software, and what my article is about. The point I was trying to make was that troublesome copy schemes don't affect piracy, it adds to it. When copy protection schemes weren't around, there was already piracy. Then came the Internet, which made getting media easier. Piracy went up. The companies were like "Oh no," and produced endless copy protection schemes. Piracy went up. This tell you two things:1. Pirates aren't affected by copy protection schemes.2. Consequently, only honest users who want to play what they own in the way they want to, are the only ones affected.Because I don't have an HDCP LCD, I can't buy the movies from iTunes. I would love to, but since I can't play them, why bother? Sadly, I am at a loss, and I can't be Apple's customer even if I wanted to. What do I have to do? Replace my 30-inch LCD for one that is HDCP compliant? No thanks. Frustrating./ Tuan


    Thanks for the direct reply. I have to say, the articles keep me coming back to this site, and not the tools who troll and thumbs-down comments... but I digress. The problem with the argument that "copyright protection aka DRM is bad, not good" is that it's only half of the story. If it were a perfect world and DRM was totally transparent and artists got properly compensated, that would be great. Sadly, it's not a perfect world. On the other side of the same coin, we cannot have a "perfect world" where all media is free to copy and bears no overhead or quality loss from reproduction, because the media is a product of the media *economy* and it would be fundamentally different if that were to change. That is not to say that the media companies aren't shooting themselves in the foot by trying to tighten their grip on old school media in a rapidly changing landscape; there is certainly a problem with the way they are addressing the change.

    So, what are we all doing here exactly? Why not propose a system that can protect the artist's right to get paid for their creative work, while allowing users an unencumbered, enjoyable media experience? Why not work toward that ideal environment where DRM is still there, but it manages the users' rights just as much as it manages the artists? That's where I think your frustration should be vented, since it won't do *anyone* any good to propose swinging our culture the other way toward a completely 'free' media society where we are drowned in bad music and movies since there is no way for the truly talented to rise to the top.

    And HDCP is the pits, too. I can't use my LCD monitor to watch cable HDTV since apparently it would be harder for me to use a component capture device (same resolution as HDMI) than it would be for me to use a HDMI capture device if I wanted to rip shows off of cable.
  • 6 Hide
    tuannguyen , March 20, 2009 8:34 PM
    joebob2000Thanks for the direct reply. I have to say, the articles keep me coming back to this site, and not the tools who troll and thumbs-down comments... but I digress. The problem with the argument that "copyright protection aka DRM is bad, not good" is that it's only half of the story. If it were a perfect world and DRM was totally transparent and artists got properly compensated, that would be great. Sadly, it's not a perfect world. On the other side of the same coin, we cannot have a "perfect world" where all media is free to copy and bears no overhead or quality loss from reproduction, because the media is a product of the media *economy* and it would be fundamentally different if that were to change. That is not to say that the media companies aren't shooting themselves in the foot by trying to tighten their grip on old school media in a rapidly changing landscape; there is certainly a problem with the way they are addressing the change.So, what are we all doing here exactly? Why not propose a system that can protect the artist's right to get paid for their creative work, while allowing users an unencumbered, enjoyable media experience? Why not work toward that ideal environment where DRM is still there, but it manages the users' rights just as much as it manages the artists? That's where I think your frustration should be vented, since it won't do *anyone* any good to propose swinging our culture the other way toward a completely 'free' media society where we are drowned in bad music and movies since there is no way for the truly talented to rise to the top.And HDCP is the pits, too. I can't use my LCD monitor to watch cable HDTV since apparently it would be harder for me to use a component capture device (same resolution as HDMI) than it would be for me to use a HDMI capture device if I wanted to rip shows off of cable.


    I think the solution is to make media accessible to the customer. Allowing the customer to truly enjoy their purchased goods on any device, anytime, anywhere they want. The user experience is--in the end--what matters most. Make more enjoyable to use services. Make it so the purchase can enjoy more and buy more.

    There are other ways to promote a healthy business tactic, than simply policing people. That's what I mean.

    / Tuan
  • -3 Hide
    Anonymous , March 20, 2009 8:46 PM
    Your article points to Apple and seems to indicate that they and they alone are responsible for the content being sold (through iTunes) with DRM protection. And you end with:

    To Apple: iTunes is definitely the market maker out there in terms of content distribution. From music to movies, it's the top service. News like this though, don't help your cause, especially when you're trying to appease to the crowd here, on Tom's Hardware. With ads boasting about great life style, user experience, and how "everything just works," this is a slap in the face.

    Do you honestly believe that the decision to saddle these downloads with DRM-protection is 100 percent at the discretion of Apple? If the answer is "no," the article is misleading since you do not mention the other parties that are obviously involved with these decisions.

    I, too, would prefer DRM-free legal downloads of movie content in HD. And as such, will wait until (hopefully) they become available. But I think an article such as this should expose ALL the players, not just shoot the messenger (or deliverer of the content).
  • 5 Hide
    tuannguyen , March 20, 2009 9:22 PM
    sammydaddy99Your article points to Apple and seems to indicate that they and they alone are responsible for the content being sold (through iTunes) with DRM protection. And you end with: To Apple: iTunes is definitely the market maker out there in terms of content distribution. From music to movies, it's the top service. News like this though, don't help your cause, especially when you're trying to appease to the crowd here, on Tom's Hardware. With ads boasting about great life style, user experience, and how "everything just works," this is a slap in the face.Do you honestly believe that the decision to saddle these downloads with DRM-protection is 100 percent at the discretion of Apple? If the answer is "no," the article is misleading since you do not mention the other parties that are obviously involved with these decisions.I, too, would prefer DRM-free legal downloads of movie content in HD. And as such, will wait until (hopefully) they become available. But I think an article such as this should expose ALL the players, not just shoot the messenger (or deliverer of the content).


    Hi sammydaddy99 -

    Thanks for the response.
    I'm aware that it's not all up to Apple, just like the decision the U.S. government makes is not all up to the President.

    However, Apple has a dominance over online music, in a very big way. This is why they were able to go DRM-free with iTunes Plus. Based on iTunes size, revenue, and dominance, Apple has a way with the music industry. iTunes is an extremely powerful force in the music industry.

    To be clear, though, I understand what you're saying. However, if I was a big music or movie publisher, I'd want my content on iTunes, no matter what. The sales that iTunes provides far exceeds the numbers representative of people who want to use iTunes to do illegal things. If I was a publisher and Apple told me I could sell more content without HDCP or music-DRM, I would sure do it. :) 

    / Tuan
  • 10 Hide
    eklipz330 , March 20, 2009 9:23 PM
    Good job Mr. Nguyen, well written article that I can whole-heartily agree with... Of course, all my HD content comes through netflix, are they HDCP compliant as well? I mean, I don't think I've run into this problem... yet
  • 5 Hide
    Blessedman , March 20, 2009 9:58 PM
    I couldn't agree more, you would think while hemorrhaging cash media companies would find way to cut cost of their products not add to it. The ignorance and arrogance of these companies is astonishing, to believe that they can produce a lock that cannot be broken. I find the physical medium itself to be punishment enough. Those stupid stickers they put on dvd's to keep thieves from stealing it while in the store, HA! HDCP and those stupid stickers are about the same thing for me, a delusional attempt to stop someone from stealing. If jail time does not sway a person do you think a sticker will? Give me a break... I don't advocate piracy, but I think the market has a way of balancing itself out and piracy plays an important role in this.
  • 4 Hide
    vic20 , March 20, 2009 10:31 PM
    People steal music and video because they want something but don't see the value in your pricing or just because they can get it for free.

    What does this tell us? That music and media is highly overpriced. Would you wait 3-4 hours for a new release movie torrent if you could buy the DVD for 5 bucks? Would you put up with infections and searching Limewire and waiting if iTunes songs were 5 or 10 cents?

    The old buck a song ($20 to fill a CD in CD audio format) and $20 a movie and $35 a bluray is WAY TOO MUCH for a download or mass produced disc in a case.
  • 1 Hide
    rcarm , March 20, 2009 11:00 PM
    blame intel, they made it
  • 5 Hide
    Greatwalrus , March 21, 2009 12:03 AM
    Tuan, you write great articles :) 

    Great Job.
  • 6 Hide
    tuannguyen , March 21, 2009 12:15 AM
    Thanks for the positive feedback guys. I'll be doing more and more investigative reporting in hopes of revealing bad or dishonest products or services from companies. We'll call them out here so you guys get to know the full story before any hard earned money is put on the counter.

    Thanks!

    / Tuan
  • 2 Hide
    San Pedro , March 21, 2009 12:23 AM
    vic20People steal music and video because they want something but don't see the value in your pricing or just because they can get it for free.What does this tell us? That music and media is highly overpriced. Would you wait 3-4 hours for a new release movie torrent if you could buy the DVD for 5 bucks? Would you put up with infections and searching Limewire and waiting if iTunes songs were 5 or 10 cents?The old buck a song ($20 to fill a CD in CD audio format) and $20 a movie and $35 a bluray is WAY TOO MUCH for a download or mass produced disc in a case.


    Totally agree, pricing for media is way off base and is the main reason for rampant piracy. Oh and TV stations seem to be actually going in smarter direction than the movie and music industry. They just put their shows online (at least for viewers in the US) so that people can watch them at their leisure, while they still can make some advertising revenue.
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