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Macbook Video DRM Problems Continue to Make Waves

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macbook-defectiveApple (s aapl) continues to find itself in hot water over its decision to support strict copy protection standards with its new line of Macbooks. Owners of the new generation of Macbooks and Macbook Pros were up in arms last week about the fact that HD movies bought at the iTunes store wouldn’t show up on many external displays, such as LCD screens or digital projectors. Instead, users were greeted by a warning that their displays were “not authorized to play protected movies.”

Apple reacted to the brouhaha this week with a Quicktime update that disabled the copy protection scheme. That apparently wasn’t enough to appease the Free Software Foundation (FSF). The open source advocacy organization just started a holiday-themed “35 Days against DRM” campaign that attempts to point out flaws of consumer electronics with DRM support and dissuade shoppers from buying them, one device a day. Think of it as an advent calendar from the Church of Linux, if you will. Apple’s new Macbooks have the dubious honor of being featured on the campaign’s very first day.

Apple isn’t the only company that limits the playback of HD content on external displays. In fact, there is a whole standard for this type of DRM that goes by the name “High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection,” or HDCP. The idea is to make it impossible to capture and record HD signals in order to make unprotected copies¬†with the help of a secondary computer or a similar device. HDCP aims to stop such recordings by encrypting the video signal in such a way that it can only be accessed by HDCP-compliant displays.

HDCP is part of a bigger scheme to protect Hollywood’s HD content all the way from the sale to the actual viewing experience. Of course, all of this only makes sense if the movies in question are copy-protected in the first place. Apple’s new Macbooks only prevented the playback of DRM-protected movies and TV shows downloaded from the iTunes store. Users that got their HD flicks for free from torrent sites are still able to view them with any external projector or display of their choosing.

The FSF chose to ignore this obvious loophole when it took a stance against Macbooks, and Apple’s disabling of HDCP obviously makes the FSF’s claims look even more dubious. Then again, it’s questionable whether the pledge of a few dedicated Ubuntu users not to buy machines designed to run OS X is going to make any difference.

But DRM foes do have a point in keeping Apple on their watch list. The fact that the company disabled support for HDCP doesn’t mean it won’t be supported again sometime in the future. If anything, the whole affair is a lesson that DRM-protected content always comes with strings attached: Buy a locked-down movie today, just know there’s no guarantee it will play on your device tomorrow.

10 Responses to “Macbook Video DRM Problems Continue to Make Waves”

  1. Excessive Copy Protection via Vista was the main reason I switched to a Macbook November 2008. If Apple plans to cripple its computers it may be time for Ubuntu and a Linux machine.

    While some have commented they are not alarmed, it is in small steps that our rights are eroded. We need to stop this fad before it becomes a trend.

    free software, copyleft and sovereignty

  2. From what I understand, the update resolved the analog issue. As far as the reponse, I’m willing to bet most of the people making noise haven’t encountered the protection sceheme – what number of people does this truly impact? My guess is that it’s very small indeed. (I happen to own a new MacBook.)

  3. @anon

    This is being discussed as an Apple issue because they are the ONLY company that has sold content and devices that don’t allow analog playback. They never tell their users about the restrictions, and this particular restriction is imposed on new MacBooks with old content that played in that manner perfectly fine when puchased/leased. Then add to it that there are incredibly few Mini-DisplayPort displays.

    This is an Apple problem with a hint of Hollywood.

  4. I still don’t understand while people insist on discussing this as an Apple issue. This is a Hollywood issue. The content owners dreamed up DRM and continue to insist upon it, out of rampant fear of piracy.

    And we have to admit, there is a lot of film piracy – from bittorrent to people copying DVDs from Netflix. People should pay (once) for the content they want.

    That said, DRM is for the birds.

  5. need to factor in the cpu/gpu cycles needed for real-time decoding — less battery time/life, hotter chips, just a whole lot of system inefficiencies which ultimately will not work. Major bootleggers (e.g. those selling disks in China) will simply work around the issue.

  6. The thing I haven’t seen pointed out that I think is really significant is that they aren’t just requiring HDCP for digital connections (DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort) and allowing analog displays (VGA), they are only allowing connections over HDCP. Even the onerous DRM (Image Constraint Token) on Blu-Ray allows analog connections to be used.