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Apple's DRM Breaks MacBook Movie-Download Viewing

When I reviewed Apple's new MacBook laptop a few weeks ago, I thought I'd found plenty of reasons to consider this a questionable upgrade over the old model.

But I completely missed one of the new machine's bigger flaws. It turns out that Apple added a "digital rights management" subsystem to the DisplayPort connector on the new MacBook and MacBook Pro. This so-called DRM will prevent you from playing some iTunes Store video downloads when you have the laptop plugged into an older monitor.

Let's spell this out without the doublespeak of phrases like "digital rights management" (which doesn't manage your rights so much as minimize them): Apple chose to incorporate software whose sole function is to disable parts of the computer.

And this DRM system doesn't even come into play when the user does something objectively bad with a movie, like upload it to the nearest file-sharing network. It slaps on the cuffs when the user merely plugs the laptop into a monitor that -- like most used today -- don't support the proprietary High-bandwidth Digital Copy Protection standard. (Most newer HDTVs, by contrast, do comply with HDCP.)

In doing so, Apple reduced the value of this laptop, compared to models with video outputs that work all the time. It reduced the value of any video download infected with DRM, compared to files that don't veto your choice of display devices.

Apple also wasted the time and talent of employees who could have worked on features that customers actually want.

These are not new problems with DRM-enforced copy protection prevention, and Apple should be familiar with all of them -- remember, it's trying to abolish DRM outright on music downloads. I can only wonder how the movie studios got to Apple this time around -- and why the studios, for their part, remain so militantly clueless about the lessons to be had from the music business's sad history with DRM.

It's still unclear how many iTunes downloads come with tags that trigger the new MacBook's DRM, so I'd like to hear from anybody who has run into this problem. But since I missed the first evidence of this problem when I wrote my review, I also have to ask new MacBook owners how they feel about learning of this hidden feature only after making their purchase.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 21, 2008; 8:50 AM ET
Categories:  Gripes , Mac , Video  
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Much like iPod firmware masking the onboard DSP chip's ability to decode other media formats. It must be doubleplusgood!

Posted by: memew | November 21, 2008 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Of somewhat greater importance, it is being reported that the DoD is banning the use of removable media due to a worm infestation. This includes USB keychain drives, floppy disks, Zip disks, and external hard drives. Care to confirm???


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | November 21, 2008 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Looks like I've purchased my last Apple product. Loss of the Firewire port and now the crippled Displayport in place of DVI makes it a deal killer. Glad I bought my MBP this past summer. I guess I'll have to bone up on LINUX!

Posted by: kamx3sj | November 21, 2008 7:44 PM | Report abuse

"This so-called DRM will prevent you from playing some iTunes Store video downloads when you have the laptop plugged into an older monitor."

Thanks Rob for exposing this onerous business practice. The more this is reported, the more the public will know, and will hopefully vote with their wallets by refusing to buy DRM encumbered products.

Like businesses, the consumer also has significant money and time invested. The consumer needs to have their property rights to use products protected.

Posted by: SteveR1 | November 22, 2008 7:58 PM | Report abuse


You should consider a new column, dealing exclusively with DRM issues. This would include the whole gamut, from the built-in DRM in AMD and Intel CPUs, to the built-in DRM in Windows operating systems from Vista forward, to the DRM in various other consumer electronics. It would also include the DRM built into or super-glued onto various applications and games. I do not mention Apple only because I do not use Apple products and have no familiarity with the DRM issues involved until I read about them in reports like the one above.

Apple users, Windows users, Intel and AMD users, movie and song customers, gamers, etc., need to combine together and use their economic and voting power as consumers to affect change. After all, the producers are certainly using their all the power at their disposal to tilt the field the way they want it.

This is going to be a very important issue for a long time to come, and if you personally do not have the time or inclination to do this, you should back it to the editorial staff of the Washington Post.

Posted by: pagun | November 23, 2008 2:03 PM | Report abuse

"infected with DRM." Awesome word choice. itunes looked like an unstoppable juggernaut at one point. But between the incredibly limiting DRM software and the most time consuming update process ever, they've exposed some kinks in the armor that Amazon, Netflix or somebody else can exploit.

Posted by: Booyah5000 | November 23, 2008 6:29 PM | Report abuse

Once upon a time Apple was "the computer for the rest of us." Now they are showing a level of concern, sensitivity, & respect for the public, plus the level of intelligence that verges on the Bush adminstration that verges on the Bush Administration. You're doing a heckuva there, Jobsie.

Posted by: musket1 | November 24, 2008 9:48 AM | Report abuse

DRM / HDCP are nothing new -- every HDMI-connected device is infested with it. Now Apple bowed to the studios and allowed it to infect the open-source DisplayPort standard too.

Until consumers get their heads out of their a$$es and refuse to buy HDCP gear and media laced with DRM, we will continue to be frustrated with draconian "content protection" that prevents us from displaying it on our existing hardware or from conveniently transferring it within our households from one device to another.

I, for one, am sticking with "unprotected" DVI connectors as long as possible, and the new media will be in the form of DVD or CD. Based on economic news these last few months, it looks like I might outlast many manufacturers too.

Posted by: roule | November 24, 2008 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Rob, you are right on the mark with your concerns and your insights into this growing and pervasive problem facing consumers universally. Perhaps Mr. Job's tight relationship to Disney and Pixar should have been brought to light in the MBP discussion. More intelligent writing and research needs to be done in this are for sure. Great work and keep it up! I agree with an earlier comment that more resources and focus would be beneficial for all!

Posted by: gecco2 | November 24, 2008 5:29 PM | Report abuse

The real problem here is Rob's source for this screed, Infinite Loop. There is not a more ignorant and alarmist group of bloggers in the entire tech blogosphere. I stopped reading Infinite Loop some time ago for that reason.

I am sure any problem playing iTunes content through Display Port will be fixed through iTunes itself. That is the beauty of having such a thorough regimen built into Apple's multimedia management.

Posted by: query0 | November 25, 2008 8:34 PM | Report abuse

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