Digital Copy Me, part 2

In the last post, we discussed the prospect of the death of physical media distribution of entertainment content, and what might takes its place.

There are currently three basic models: streaming on a proprietary network (cable company, cell phone provider, etc.), streaming on the Internet, and download from the Internet.

All suffer from the same basic problems: limited availability, DRM, and quality.

Proprietary network systems generally lock you into that platform. Change cell providers or cable companies, and your media library changes.

Availability takes on two meanings – availability of the network and availability of the media. For any streaming platform to work, you must be connected to the platform. Out of range of your cell network? Then you’re out of luck. Forget about watching movies on your vacation if you depend on your cable provider.

The titles available on a streaming network will change over time based on the deal between the content owner and the platform. That hilarious movie you wanted to show your friend? Hope the rights haven’t expired.

Availability of physical media is determined at the time of sale. If it’s cleared for sale and you buy it, it’s yours to watch at any time in the future, even if the rights for home video sales lapse.

Download to own media platforms, such as iTunes and Amazon, are an exception to the availability issue – the media is in your possession, and your ability to download is based on rights at the time of the transaction. You do not necessarily need connection to the network to play back, and some allow you to copy to a portable player for viewing at any time or place. As such, these tend to more closely mimic the old DVD model than the streaming platforms, but we still have the problem of digital rights management (DRM), which can add another kind of availability.

DRM is a bad idea for a number of reasons. Anti-DRM crusaders like Cory Doctorow who can articulate why far better than I. In short, DRM is a fool’s errand that doesn’t work, and only punishes your customers.

Ask the customers of MLB.com how good they feel about not being able to watch the games they purchased because MLB.com decided to turn off their DRM server. Or the Wal-Mart audio download customers who were informed that they should burn their downloads to CD so they could continue to work after Wal-Mart shuts down their DRM server. Wal-Mart relented – at least for now – but all it will take is for them to change their minds again to wipe out their customers’ music collections because it’s not a profitable enough business model for them.

Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs has said he would prefer to not use DRM, but they are forced to by the content owners. Amazon seems to have found some way to avoid it on their music downloads – they use plain old MP3 files.

Almost no one uses DRM-free video files (the DVD download service EZ Takes is one exception). The better DRM schemes only require connection to the DRM server to activate the file for a given computer/device – and then no further interaction is required. Which means you don’t need an active Internet connection to play. Especially bad DRM schemes confirm your right to play back the files every playback.

Even Apple’s activation DRM has its problems. Suppose you buy a new iPod or computer. Or you get a snazzy new AppleTV. You need to get permission to activate that new device. Apple allows five activations. After that, you may need to buy the program again.

Imagine if your DVD would only work in the first five DVD players (or computers) that you used, but if you purchased another, you would need a different copy of the DVD.

This is not a promising long-term model. And this needs to be a long-term model. Since the invention of the moving picture, each generation of entertainment media has a shorter life span. A film from the 1890’s is still compatible with projectors today (though it might not be safe to project a vintage nitrate print). VHS tapes enjoyed more than two decades as a viable technology. DVDs have been around for about ten. Blu-Ray may not make it much past the five years since its introduction.

But since Apple’s QuickTime made it possible to play video on a computer, video codecs have somewhat stabilized and some have enjoyed remarkable forwards compatibility. Those first QuickTime files are still playable on just about any computer today, almost twenty years later. MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 streams are readily playable as well.

There have, of course, been abortive video codecs. The development of MPEG-4 and H.264 video codecs has been somewhat disappointing, mostly due to the vagaries of standards bodies and the length of their gestation. The elementary streams are well formed, but the lack of standards in container formats makes it hard to know if it will play back in any given player. Individual flavors of H.264 (such as Apple QuickTime and Windows Media Video) have enjoyed a narrower form of stability.

Well-defined video codecs have the potential to live forever. As computers get more powerful and storage becomes more abundant, they will remain capable of playing back today’s media essentially forever. This is the advantage of digital media. Unlike film or video tape, compatibility becomes a matter of software, not media.

An individual file’s ability to exist forever means nothing if DRM can render it useless in an instant.

(continued in part 3)

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