Blu-ray's HDCP security possibly cracked. So what?
There's been some interesting chatter since yesterday over the possibility that the encryption meant to lock down the video cables connecting Blu-ray players and high-definition televisions has been broken--permanently.
As the headline on Engadget's post read: "HDCP 'master key' supposedly released, unlocks HDTV copy protection permanently." The key in question is a lengthy string of hexadecimal text that underlies a copy-prevention regime called "High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection," used in Blu-ray movies and other forms of high-definition content.
While HDCP's digital rights management (DRM) is "revocable"--it allows copyright owners to generate a fresh set of encryption keys for new releases, after which law-abiding owners of Blu-ray players have to wait for firmware updates to watch those titles --the master key by its nature can't be revoked without making every existing release unplayable on hardware that complied with the old key. Game over!
Except this game has been over for a long time. The encryption on Blu-ray hasn't stopped those titles from showing up on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks in massive volumes. So Blu-ray owners who couldn't watch a newly-purchased copy of Avatar until a firmware update for their players arrived only had to turn to BitTorrent to find a copy they could view on the device of their choice.
An intellectual-property lawyer who has been working on DRM issues for years described yesterday's reported master-key leak as "a science experiment that has no commercial meaning." In practical terms, it's easier to use existing Blu-ray cracks to rip a disc to a computer than to use the master-key compromise to break HDCP--after which you'd have to sit through a real-time duplication of the movie as it plays.
Now if the studios would ever realize the ultimate futility of DRM--as opposed to market-based measures, like making it easier and more pleasant to get a legitimate copy of a movie to rent or buy--then we'd be on to something.
Update, 9/16, 4 p.m. Thanks for the comments about my not addressing HDCP-locked material not stored on Blu-ray discs. That's an interesting point that I didn't think to address in a post that led off with a Blu-ray-specific headline, so I will now.
In most of those other cases--cable and satellite TV, for instance--breaking the lock on an HDCP connection wouldn't let you do anything that you can't do today with analog high-def component-video outputs. You'd just have fewer cables to connect to the HDCP-cracking recorder of your choice. (Replacing a cable or satellite box itself would be a much tougher proposition, thanks to authentication protocols employed by TV providers that have had plenty of experience battling people who don't want to pay for their service.)
The movie industry would dearly love to close the "analog hole" that component-video outputs represent, and in some cases there are provisions for an "analog sunset"--Blu-ray players won't have analog outputs forever. An analog night has already arrived on a few platforms: For example, two years ago I noted how new Apple laptops would not let you watch an iTunes movie download if you plugged in an external display that didn't obey HDCP.
But in any situation involving recorded media--downloaded, bought or rent on a disc, saved on a DVR's hard drive--it will remain easier to crack the DRM preventing a computer from treating the file or the disc as it would any other bit of data: something that it can copy perfectly and quickly. The one exception there would be video streamed in real-time over the Web... right? If there are others, I'd like to know about them.
September 15, 2010; 11:27 AM ET
Categories: DRM , Video
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