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A State of High-Definition Denial

What do this t-shirt, this picture puzzle, this song (MP3) and this collage of highway signs have in common?

They all include the 32-character code that a trade group called the AACS LA has been struggling to get taken off the Web. The utter futility of that effort gave me the topic for this week's column and grist for this week's podcast (listen/subscribe/iTunes).

Now here's a little background on the broader issues at work here.

The key floating around the Web, first documented in this online forum in February, is one of a few required to unlock and play an HD DVD or Blu-Ray movie, but it's the most important one of the bunch.

The AACS LA's attempts to get this key out of sight rely on a law, Digital Millennium Copyright Act (PDF), that makes it a crime to distribute tools to circumvent copy-control measures. Does a number expressed in hexadecimal notation counts as that kind of tool? What about when it's embedded in other forms of lawful expression? And in a practical sense, nobody can remove a snippet of code from the Internet.

Just look at what happened in 2000 when the MPAA tried to stop the circulation of DeCSS, one of the first programs that could unlock a commercial DVD. The MPAA failed completely, and now you have a wide assortment of programs that can copy DVDs to your hard drive--I'm partial to HandBrake myself--allowing you to back them up or watch them on a trip without taking the actual discs.

(In 2003, I suggested that movie studios ought to take the hint and support some of the legal uses enabled by these unlicensed programs. Well, the specifications for both HD DVD and Blu-Ray allow a "managed copy" option for ripping a movie to your hard drive, although it's not enabled yet; AACS LA spokesman Michael Ayers said the current fuss over the exposed key would probably push the delivery of that back still further.)

The movie industry shouldn't fear people making copies of their own movies for personal use. It should fear widespread commercial piracy. But as the MPAA's own statistics show, that's mostly an offline and international phenomenon. The most effective response to those people who do download movies off the Internet without paying would be to offer them a legitimate service with higher quality and a better selection--but, oops, they still haven't gotten around to offering that.

At some point, I would hope that all of these facts would persuade movie studios to stop wasting their shareholders' money and the court system's time on pointless DMCA-fueled lawsuits. But I also thought that point was obvious back in 2000... and here we are today, having the same argument as ever.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 10, 2007; 8:46 AM ET
Categories:  Video  
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What I find amazing is that the movie studios seem completely unable to learn from the mistakes the recording industry made.

Posted by: wiredog | May 10, 2007 10:58 AM | Report abuse

The really sad part is that it's in the movie industry's interest to cut out the middleman of the hardware (DVD), and get some kind of online service out before someone else grabs ahold of those revenues (as in itunes). These people are idiots.

Posted by: HMMWVCrunch | May 10, 2007 1:31 PM | Report abuse

I couldn't agree more.

In fact, my own opinion is that it's not really casual low quality copying over the Internet that is the real issue. I believe that both the movie and recording industry are really petrified about losing control over distribution. The studios got way too used to being able to "manufacture" pop stars and blockbuster movies with a simple formula... Throw enough money and hype at it and you'll always get your investment back and then some.

What will they do if/when the consumer gets to pick from not just 100 cable channels or 15 screens at the megaplex, but everything being produced worldwide (including tens of thousands of ammatures)? They're not fighting to protect copyrights as much as their whole system.

Posted by: someone | May 10, 2007 1:38 PM | Report abuse

I have a coworker who refuses to pay for cable tv, cds or mp3s or DVDs. He's 25 years old and everything he watches or listens to is a bootleg downloaded from torrent sites or on video sites like youtube. He makes custom shirts using photoshop that he thinks are better than what the bands sell. I think some people who blame the RIAA or the MPAA for some of these things simply forget that there is a generation for whom music is as important as it was for our generations but also something that they will never, ever pay money for. This is NOTHING like taping songs off the radio or your friends album collection. This kid has, I think he told me, over 10,000 mp3s stored in a DVD-R binder and he listens to music all the time. I can confirm that when we went to see Spiderman 3 he refused to pay to go into the theater. These "gimme gimme" kids have no respect for the creative arts and have a conservative-fueled hatred of show business. Don't pretend they're anything else but leeches.

Posted by: DCer | May 11, 2007 9:22 AM | Report abuse

«At some point, I would hope that all of these facts would persuade movie studios to stop wasting their shareholders' money and the court system's time on pointless DMCA-fueled lawsuits....» But if the studios - like the United States at the federal as well as the state and local levels - are run mainly by lawyers who, as interested parties, have nothing at all against the transfer of funds from the pockets of shareholders and/or taxpayers into their own or those of their colleagues, expecting such facts to have the desired effect is a wee tad naive....


Posted by: M Henri Day | May 11, 2007 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Yeah... the problem is these kids, these "leeches" who just want everything for free.

[rolling eyes]

Could the problem really be an industry who says that you're a thief when you take your own DVD and convert it for use on your iPod?

This is all about control. Always was. Aways will be. And it's not that they don't get it. They don't care. They could screw us out of fair use, and other rights we have, as long as it makes them another dollar, they really don't care about laws or rights.

Posted by: Tom | May 11, 2007 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Well, i know enough musicans and song writers to understand that downloading may rob some of money they deserve, but when i have to buy a blank cd-r from the same company that sells me the cd burner (or dvd), the power amplifier for my stereo, the tv i watch the dvd's on, possibly even the PC i use, even the record label i buy a cd from, and cd's still cost almost as much as they did 15 years ago, I say let's leech a little more, cause they are way too worried about making every penny they can, and if they could have controlled taping of the radio back when, they would have charged for it. They don't compensate the artists for providing the mechanisms that robs the artist, so who are the crooks here? They don't pay more royalties now that blank cd's cost pennies as opposed to dollars. The artists and the fans lose, the companies win....they invented all this stuff, they lost control of it, and now they want to put the people in court who use it....something seems wrong all the way around.

Posted by: JoseP | May 11, 2007 3:08 PM | Report abuse

The average signed bands makes very little money through CD sales. Touring/Merch and publishing is where they get money.

Posted by: usiel | May 11, 2007 3:37 PM | Report abuse

In Australia the record companies fired half the bands from their labels and then cut their publicity budgets in half and then blamed downloaders for a 30% drop in sales!!!! And the media buy it!

Posted by: steve K | May 11, 2007 5:32 PM | Report abuse

I remember forking over 16 bucks in 1991 for my first CD. I also remember reading that CDs were so much more expensive becasue it was a new technology and that after a few years the cost would go down as production costs streamlined. Its 16 years later still cost the same except now I can pay a dollar a song and not even own a physical product.

I love the way the MPAA, the RIAA and the companies that comprise them blame "piracy" for any failures. Why dont we blame everything on "piracy" not poor management and backwards thinking:
Braniff airlines -piracy
Independece Air - piracy
The "Yugo" -piracy
New Coke -piracy
Betamax -piracy
Cystal pepsi -piracy
The price of gasoline -piracy
The new Mcdonalds apple pie -piracy

Truth is when the "leeches" feel like they are being robbed... they steal right back!

Posted by: ken | May 11, 2007 6:00 PM | Report abuse

There seems to be so much confusion here. It is entirely legitimate for composers, authors, producers and recording artists (music or film) to be recompensed for their contributions. Their contributions should be rewarded. It is also entirely reasonable that consumers should be able to copy downloads to iPods, CDs and DVDs, just as LPs were copied to cassettes, so that people could listen to music in their cars or elsewhere. The problem is piracy, which robs artists (and their representatives) of their profits. It is astounding that the companies involved have not yet distinguished between piracy and convenience of use and incorporated this distinction in their distribution policies.

Posted by: jcreitz | May 11, 2007 9:40 PM | Report abuse

The RIAA & MPAA knows very well the difference between format shifting and true piracy, but to them, it's the same. This is an industry that has grown lazy because they get us to pay for the same music over and over when we went from vinyl to cassette to CD. The free ride is over. Once it's digital, the physical format is irrelevant.

They understand that, so they're essentially trying to listen to a pay-per-listen model.

It's not a difference of understanding, it's a difference of goals. The consumer wants more options, the record company wants a cut of that.

Ultimately, it's why DRM is a bad thing. It reduces consumer choice and puts our culture in the hands of guys who view us as sheep to be sheared.

And to those trying to bring the artist into it... It's not really about the artist. It's about the middleman. Do some research and understand the artist gets close to nothing from a CD. $14-18 for a CD and the artist gets under $1. In the future, CD's will be cheaper, Artists will make more, and everyone will be happier. Oh, except for the RIAA. Imagine buying the latest album online from the artist for $4. And the artist keeps all of it. Everybody is better off.

Posted by: Tom | May 11, 2007 10:20 PM | Report abuse

It's pretty easy to suggest that someone else should be carefree with the source of all of their revenue. Rob, how about you share your bank account number? I promise, I'll only use it for research and backup copies.

Posted by: Charodon | May 11, 2007 10:55 PM | Report abuse

I am all for purchasing and downloading directly from the artists.
We do not need the no-talent leeches in the middle anymore, choosing who we need to listen to because they have 'so much invested' in them.
sales are down because the 'leeches' chose to promote crap.

Posted by: jj | May 14, 2007 10:58 AM | Report abuse

"And to those trying to bring the artist into it... It's not really about the artist. It's about the middleman."

Agreed. And while the middleman is a big part of this, let's also not forget to keep an eye on US Copyright laws.

In simplest terms, a Copyright is a legalized monopoly which is supposed to provide a more favorable risk:reward ratio for the publisher of the content through a reasonable period of exclusitivity. That's it.

However, what has evolved over the years have been extension after extension of the Copyright duration period. As a result, virtually nothing created in the 20th Century has yet passed into the Public Domain.

And while the RIAA claims "its for the Artist", the truth is otherwise. Just take a look at the musical recordings of Elvis: even though he died at a young age (which shortens the period of protection), the existing duration is already so long that statistically, all of Elvis's chidren AND GRANDCHILDREN will die of old age before his royalties expire.

This is crass perpetuation of revenues - - not merely a risk mitigation provision for the content creator. And with publication costs now lower than ever, the risk today is even lower, which means that copyright protections should be *shorter* than ever, not longer.

Currently, we're around ~7 years until the next cycle for when Business will start to bribe^H^H^H Lobby! their Congressmen for another Copyright extension. Start to keep an eye out for it and be ready to write to your Congressman to tell him that enough is enough.


Posted by: -hh | May 17, 2007 12:13 PM | Report abuse

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