Vista DRM Domesday Scenario rebuttals

, posted: 21-Jan-2007 13:28

Windows VistaThere's usually another side to any story, and the one about Digital Rights Management in Windows Vista is no exception. As I mentioned Peter Gutmann's A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection in an earlier blog post, which in turn was picked up by The Free Software Foundation's BadVista campaign site, I thought it would be only fair to cover some of the rebuttals of what the DRM in Vista is alleged to do.

Another reason is that Steve Gibson's getting all hot and frothy over the issue. That alone makes me wonder how accurately it is being reported... Gibson's fond of sensationalising even trivial matters, like when he got a bee in his bonnet about Windows "raw" TCP sockets a while ago.

Ryan Bemrose's The Audio Fool blog on MSDN says Gutmann's article has "spots and grains of truth" in it, as it references official Microsoft documents. However, Bemrose says these get lost in "ranting FUD" in which Gutmann paints a DRM Domesday Scenario that will never appear.

Says Bemrose:
A content producer that angers a significant portion of their customers can't expect to sell very much more content, and they know this. They may be misguided, greedy, and completely without a moral compass, but they're not stupid.

While I agree with Bemrose's characterisation of content providers, I'm not so sure that they aren't stupid as well however. Let's not forget the Sony rootkit scandal, or the annoying regional lockout for DVDs. History says if content producers have the option to use DRM that locks out customers or even damages their systems, they will use it. No moral compass indeed.

Bemrose says Microsoft had to take the pragmatic approach here and go with the flow - if it didn't, it would get flamed for denying users access to High Definition content. This is probably a correct assessment. At the same time, even the faintest whiff of Microsoft pushing DRM that restricts what users can do with their computers will cause massive public relations fall-out; and, it'll be exploited to the full by those with ideological axes to grind. High-Bandwidth Digital Copy Protection or HDCP is for instance an Intel standard. Microsoft had to follow the specification, or face being sued by content producers.

Microsoft Most Valued Professional (MVP) Paul Smith picked up a claim in Gutmann's paper, namely that Super Audio Compact Discs won't play on Vista because of the DRM. That's correct, Smith Says, but he points out that SACDs won't play on any personal computer, be they Windows, Macintosh or Linux/BSD machines, because Sony-Philips won't allow it. In other words, it's existing copy protection and not something introduced in Vista.

Likewise, Microsoft's Lead Program Manager for Vista Video Dave Marsh says DRM technologies have been in Windows for a while now.

  • Standard definition DVD playback has required selective use of Macrovision ACP on analog television outputs since it was introduced in the 1990s. DVD playback on and in Windows has always supported this.
  • The ability to restrict audio outputs (e.g., S/PDIF) for certain types of content has been available since Windows Millennium Edition (ME) and has been available in all subsequent versions of Windows.
  • The Certified Output Protection Protocol (COPP) was released over 2 years ago for Windows XP, and provides applications with the ability to detect output types and enable certain protections on video outputs such as HDCP, CGMS-A, and Macrovision ACP.
If the above Microsofties are to be believed, there will be no degradation of existing content. The DRM will only activate if the content producer requires it - something Smith says isn't likely to happen until 2011 - and only apply to protected content.

Existing content won't be affected, like medical imagery being degraded if you playback HD material for instance. Neither will S/PDIF and Component Video outputs be disabled in Vista by default, only in the (rare) case of protected content requiring it - and in that case, it'll only apply for the protected content, according to Marsh.

The same goes for the driver revocation: it looks like Microsoft will take a very cautious approach to this, and work with hardware vendors to make sure a new driver is available before the existing one gets revoked. Either way, it won't affect non-protected content.

Unified graphics drivers won't go away either in Vista, Marsh says, and any performance impact from the one-key message authentication code which is encrypted will only be felt when protected content is played.

Marsh agrees with Gutmann though that drivers are more complex to write and it's inevitable that Vista uses more CPU cycles because of the DRM. He also fudges the question on echo cancellation not being available somewhat by saying: "we believe that Windows Vista provides applications with access to sufficient information to successfully build high quality echo cancellation functionality." We'll see how that goes.

I also thought what one commenter on Smith's blog was pertinent: he purchased a system from HP that included an HD-DVD player and got The Bourne Supremacy disc to go with it. However, his 24" HP monitor isn't HDCP compliant, so he can't watch the movie. HP only HDCP-compliant monitors offer lower than 1080 resolution he says, which is quite ironical really and in line with part of the scenario Gutmann sets out.

It's interesting to follow the debate, which is quite complex as you can see from the above. Microsoft's caught in the cross-fire over DRM but the content producers that enforce usage restrictions escape scot-free.

Ultimately, you can't help thinking that entertainment content doesn't warrant the huge amount of analysis and effort expended on it. Sure, it's big business but the content producers are protecting it the wrong way.

Other related posts:
Fighting with Windows 8
The Windows Phone 7.5 bouncing tiles bug
Windows Live Essentials betas seem good, but oh so flaky

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