The Impossible Stream

Will digital video ever break free?


The next time you are stuck watching fifteen minutes of junk before your DVD even hits the menu screen, complain to the librarian. What, you didn't know that Library of Congress decides what you can see on your TV? What are you, some kind of video pirate scum? Well then, welcome aboard a very crowded ship.

Only video obsessives can be expected to know that our increasingly bizarre copyright laws have left it to a government librarian to decide how DVD players should work. Yet when James H. Billington's office held last week that there is no good reason to allow DVD players to "evade" the way disc makers wants their ads to run, millions of movie lovers got stuck with video pitch after video pitch. (I stopped counting after a dozen or so "coming soons" on the new Lion King disc, Disney being way ahead of the curve in the whole captive marketing department.)

In contrast to digital audio, which has proven highly difficult to wall-off from users' computer-fueled imaginations, digital video is fast becoming trapped in a set of proprietary boxes which make it almost impossible for the paying customer to use the content in any way they see fit. Unskippable DVD ads are just the most obvious and immediate example.

As high-definition TV spreads across the land—and spread it must, for the FCC has decreed it must, and a federal appeals court just agreed—consumers will encounter the DVI port. This digital video interface is designed to make sure that you have to the proper authorization to play digital content. The all-digital DVI stream avoids any conversion to analog, which can degrade the signal. A better signal is clearly a plus for consumers, but it comes with a catch.

Some manufacturers of audio-video equipment are already keeping the digital and analog signal paths completely separate. In other words, if you a have a digital input, that signal will only pop out of digital outputs. Not even analog copies of copy-protected digital sources can be made with such equipment.

And, of course, it is the potential for digital copies of works to be made that is being used to justify all the controls and flags on video content. Here too, as with the music industry, the goal is not so much to defeat the commercial pirates of copyrighted works, but to defend a profitable distribution model. Just as record companies rely on bundling 10 crappy songs with one good one, movie studios depend on when and where a disc can be played to boost sales.

Disney—surprise—is great at releasing a title for a "limited time" in order to gin up sales. But all studios rely on the region code system to keep certain discs from playing on certain players, leaving film fans wondering why they cannot buy what they want to buy.

The best example of a selective release might be Disney's (sorry) Song of the South which although long judged too racially backward for residents of the USA, nonetheless is zip-a-doo-da-dandy entertainment for Europeans and Asians. So dangerous is this film that it has never been released on DVD, guaranteeing a bunch of pirate scum will pirate it.

The Motion Picture Association of America's biggest fear is that consumers will come to feel that the digital content they legitimately purchase—either on a wire or on a disc—should be available to them at a time and place of their choosing, without incurring additional licensing fees. Fast home networks allow, in theory, for content to be streamed into multiple boxes hanging off the network. But despite some tentative steps in this direction, the industry and equipment manufacturers remain obsessed with losing control of the content rather than extending its reach.

The big content providers among the studios and production houses actually threatened to withhold their digital programming from their audiences unless Congress approves a new restriction on the transmission of digital video. Incredibly, Congress appears ready to fall for this variation on a temper tantrum rather conduct an interesting experiment in what would happen if all of a sudden there was nothing to put on TV.

A likely result of the proposed broadcast flags for digital TV signals is that home networks and PCs to will not be able access digital video content. The essentially open system of the personal computers, with open standards like Ethernet and a high degree of user control and futzability, is being bypassed. In its place we are slowly getting a system which assumes viewers are thieves and movie producers are victims.

That sounds exactly backwards.