Weekend Edition: Media war still raging

Matthew JC. Powell
22 February, 2008
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Now that the Blu-ray Disc versus HD-DVD stoush has been declared a non-starter (without the market ever really having much of a say in it) does that mean that the future of content delivery has been decided? Hardly. Battles are still raging on a number of fronts and few surrenders are to be found. Concessions, however, are many.

For example, 20th Century Fox has released a number of DVDs in the USA which include "digital copies" of the main content. This may seem an odd sort of terminology since the DVD itself is a digital copy. But the emphasis in that terminology should be not on the word "digital" but on the word "copy". The "digital copy" is a version of the film optimised for use on devices like Apple TV and iPod touch. I specify those devices because, in the case of Fox at least, the copy is still protected by Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management (DRM) technology, just as if it had been downloaded from the iTunes Store. Which means it won’t play on any non-Apple devices.

On the one hand this is an important concession. Here is a mainstream DVD supplier saying "OK, we accept that people want to rip the content off of our DVDs and watch it on their portable devices. We won’t stop you. In fact we’ll help you". You’re provided with a digital copy you don’t have to download or even rip with tools like HandBrake or Mac The Ripper. With the copyright owner’s explicit permission you can copy these movies.

On the other hand it’s a fairly limited concession. The reason most people rip their DVDs is because they want to play the content they buy on the device they choose wherever and whenever they choose. FairPlay means they don’t quite get that. They can play it wherever and whenever they choose and on whatever device they choose, as long as it’s a device manufactured by Apple.

This seems fine to me and probably to a lot of you, because we happen to have chosen Apple media devices. But a whole mess of people out there haven’t, and Fox’s "digital copy" is as inaccessible by legal means to them as the DVD itself. It’s one theing for Apple to dominate the legal download market — at least there’s one thing Microsoft doesn’t have a stranglehold, right? — but it’s another for Apple to be grabbing a similar hold on content people buy from sources other than Apple. Somehow, that seems wrong to me.

Put yourself in the position of a Windows user who owns say a Sony VAIO laptop and a Sony DVD player and a Sony Bravia TV and a Sony PlayStation 3 for watching Blu-ray Disc movies (because there aren’t hardly any good games for the thing) and a PlayStation Portable for watching stuff on the go. Why does Apple get to decide whether or not that person can copy the DVD they just bought to their portable device? That person clearly has just as nutty a devotion to Sony as any accolyte of Cupertino has towards Apple.

The war, you see, is not merely between the different versions of high-quality media delivery. It’s also between the different forms of low-quality delivery. The priority there is on convenience and freedom of choice, and it’s still a very muddy picture indeed.

The music industry has been angaged for much of the past decade in precisely the same war, but it’s very much further along. Sales of physical media are steadily in decline, downloads are on the increase and aside from a few sticks in mud like the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, everyone agrees that the future is in downloads. (The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry really needs to be told that hardly anybody uses a phonograph anymore.)

Last year Apple started selling high-quality music downloads without its fairPlay DRM encoding on them via "iTunes Plus". You paid a premium price but you got a higher-quality version of the song tat you could truly play on any device you chose. Even if you were the guy who bought a Zune. More recently the price premium has gone, and a lot of songs on the iTunes Store are available without any kind of rights-management. Curiously enough, the world has not ended.

The reason for this is simple: most people aren’t criminals and most people don’t want stuff that isn’t theirs. Quote me all the stats on music piracy you want, it still doesn’t change the fact that people are fundamentally decent and fair-minded. Apple’s FairPlay is a good starting point for digital rights management because it allows users to do pretty much whatever they want with the music they buy, within reasonable bounds of fairness, Copy it onto multiple iPods, share it around your house, put it on several computers, even burn CDs for your friends — within limits. Where it falls down is in the range of devices you can use it on, and that’s where people get cross.

Apple has recognised this and removed even that limitation on some of its music, in partnership with some fairly brave pioneering record companies (read: people who realise they no longer have a choice). The result has been that there has not been a massive spike in wholesale piracy of songs purchased from iTunes Plus. It hasn’t meant the end of piracy by any means, but nor has it been the cause of it.. Because most people aren’t pirates and don’t want to be.

I recently purchased Ringo Starr’s latest album, "Liverpool 8". Yes, at 67 years of age, he’s still recording. And, you know, it ain’t bad. But the reason I bring it up is because I bought it not on CD or by downloading (though both of these options are available). I bought it as a flash drive packaged as a rubber wristband. The flash drive contains all the same songs as the CD, encoded as 192Kbit/sec MP3s, with no copy protection whatsoever. Copy it to your computer. Copy it to a mate’s computer. Burn CDs. Whatever. Ringo has clearly recognised that if the pirates want to pirate his stuff there’s little he or his record company can do to fight them — so why not stop making it difficult for the fair-minded majority to do what they want without jumping through hoops?

Of course I, like most of the music industry, always look to Ringo Starr to see the leading edge. But that’s not my point.

My point is that "Liverpool 8" is a sign that the music industry is finally recognising that its future does not lie in pieces of plastic, but in their content. The delivery mechanism is unimportant — what matters is the convenience.

The movie and TV industries will eventually come to the same conclusion. They’re just a bit behind.

Blu-ray Discs are not only heavily copy-protected, they’re also very strongly region-coded using an entirely new system. It’s that extra security that has attracted the studios to Blu-ray, more than the technological advantages. The distribution of "digital copies" on DVDs at the same time as moving to the more secure of the two high-definition disc formats demonstrates starkly the quandary in which the industry finds itself.

The music industry faced the same challenge a few years ago, when legal download services like iTunes launched at the same time as the format war between SACD and DVD-Audio. Nobody won the format war for next-generation high-quality music delivery, because the market went elsewhere entirely. Maybe that was because convenience wins over quality, and maybe it was because the format war diluted demand for next-generation discs anyway.

In video, the format war is now over and we have a fair fight: high-quality high–security content on Blu-ray Disc versus compressed-to-within-and-inch-of-its-life-for-download content you can watch on just about anything, wherever and whenever you want. I’ll be watching this battle with much interest.

Bento prize winner: week 4. CORRECTION. This week’s prize winner is gramsey, whose advice in a number of different forums has been of great asistance to several users. Thanks, mickdevlin, your prize will soon be with you.

A reminder: next Friday we’ll be awarding the fifth and final Bento prize for Reader Helper of the week. If you want to win a copy of Bento by Filemaker, get onto the forums and start helping people out straight away.

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