Macbook Video DRM Problems Continue to Make Waves

macbook-defectiveApple 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.


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