Thursday, January 7, 2010

Welcome to 2010: Digital Rights Management

This one is not about Real Estate. It is about HDTV. So skip it if you were hoping for the latest REO or foreclosure information. On that topic, there is a popular webinar going around about bulk REOs which I will write about later this week.


My home TV setup involves a bunch of stuff, but mainly it is a flat TV, an amp, a TiVo, and a Blu-Ray DVD player. To be able to see everything in stunning HD, you must connect the components together either with component video (which involves some 5 cables), or with HDMI.

Component video is an analog solution; this means that there might be some slight loss of quality. In practice, I haven't seen it. But it is a pain to run 5 cables between each piece of equipment.

HDMI is a digital connection. However, it is more than that; it is also a communications protocol, and it supports something called DRM, or digital rights management; in particular, it supports several copy protection schemes, including HDCP, a copy protection scheme made for high definition content, like HD programs and HD stuff from DVD players.

Why does this matter to me? I noticed that sometimes my TiVo records a blank screen, or a screen with an error message, something about HDMI Not Permitted. So I started looking into the problem. I also started noticing it more when I added a second TV connected to the TiVo, through the component connection.

See, what happens is that the TiVo is connected via the "good" HDMI connection to the amplifier, and a bunch of other things are also hooked up, like the cable box, the DVD player, a CD player ...

For HDMI to work with the copy protection scheme, when the "protect" information is turned on from the source (like the cable company, or the DVD player), then your TV or amplifier is supposed to negotiate with the source and say "I'm only talking to a TV, not a recorder" or something close to that, and so the source device continues to play. However if there is no one at the other end of the HDMI connection, because the amp is powered on but connected to the cable box or the DVD player, then when the TiVo tries to talk to the amp, it does not get an answer and so it blanks the screen or puts up an error message. If you unplug the HDMI cable, everything works fine, of course. And, it doesn't just shut down the HDMI output. It kills the TiVo recording and the component outputs.

For those of you who think this is only a problem for people with TiVos, and amps, and other home theater setups, think again: tens of millions of televisions have been shipped which have HDMI connections but are NOT HDCP (copy protection) compliant. And some of the new DVD players can only be connected with HDMI; or they will only play HD through HDMI. And when you hook them up to your older TV, guess what: It Won't Work.

What to do? Well, there are a few options. There are some HDCP "strippers" out there, which convert HDMI digital signals to the component video signals, and at the same time tell the copy protection gatekeeper that everything is ok -- of course, these devices are probably illegal since they circumvent a copy protection scheme (Digital Millennium Copyright Act, thanks so much), or you might be able to find an older Blu-Ray player with component outputs.

I'm pretty upset with the solution the industry has foisted upon the public. Almost as angry as what they did when they did away with the analog TV signals (so now only urban areas can get over the air TV). I wrote about that in a previous post.

Of course, most programming is going to be arriving at your house through digital means, like the internet, in the future, so maybe it doesn't matter. Except you might not be able to see it because you might try to copy it and that would destroy the entire entertainment industry.

And in case you were wondering, one of the reasons that Windows Vista was such a dog, is that it was designed, to a large extent, in support of protecting premium content; in other words, a large amount of the processing power of the computers running Vista is devoted to checking for copy protection. Vista is one of the best things to ever happen to Apple. New versions of Windows and the Mac OS are likely to devote huge resources to copy protection, as well. Linux, anyone? And there are inexpensive programs, readily available, that allow the copying of DVDs, and the Blu-Ray copy protection scheme has been broken; so why copy a DVD by playing it? There is no point to HDCP. It is a real disservice to the average consumer, and only a minor irritation to those that would make illegal copies of things.

Even today you can buy an older digital VCR that will copy from component inputs (I have one); so I could hook up my TiVo to the VCR and tape whatever I want, in HD 1080i.


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