Why HDCP Sucks; Apple, Are You Listening?

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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    Top Comments
  • ethaniel
    I completely agree. You buy an original movie, and you're still treated like a thief. Terrible.
  • gwolfman
    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!
  • afrobacon
    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
  • gwolfman
    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!
  • gwolfman
    Sorry for double post, but in addition to ^^^^^ I would like to add: "any way" or by any means
  • justsomeone
    Tuan, nice job on calling these companies out on this crap!