Rant: The Impossible Stream

The war on DVD users


Wading through a dozen ads before I even reach the menu screen of the new Lion King DVD, preschoolers screaming all the way, I vowed to throttle Disney capo Michael Eisner.

Foolish me. Little did I know that the guy I really want is James H. Billington, the man who will soon make DVD remotes as impotent as Bob Dole sans Viagra. Billington is the librarian of the Library of Congress, and our utterly unhinged copyright laws have designated him the government DVD czar. When his office ruled in October that there is no reason to let DVD players "evade" the way disc makers want their ads to run, the decision joined the oozing trail of spoor left behind 1998's Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Couple those DMCA-spawned regs with rampant Big Media bootlicking from the Federal Communications Commission, and you won't see digital video headed down a consumer-friendly path. In contrast to digital audio, which music fans with computers can rip-mix-burn at will, digital video is fast becoming trapped in a set of proprietary boxes that make it almost impossible for the paying customer to manipulate the content at all. Unskippable DVD ads are just the most obvious and immediate example.

As high-definition TV spreads across the land, consumers will encounter a new port, dubbed digital video interface, on the backs of their very expensive boxes. This is designed to make sure you have 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 built-in restrictions for end users.

As in the music industry, the goal isn't to defeat piracy so much as it is to defend a 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 profits.

Disney -- them again -- 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, albeit analog, release is Disney's (sorry) Song of the South. Long judged too racially backward for residents of the USA, Song nonetheless is zip-a-doo-da-dandy video entertainment for Europeans and Asians. So dangerous is this film that it has never even been released on DVD.

The Motion Picture Association of America is so set on retaining this system that it intends for government decrees to rope off home entertainment equipment from personal computers, consumer interests be damned. The big content providers among the studios and production houses actually threatened to withhold digital programming from audiences unless the FCC approved a new restriction on the transmission of digital video. Incredibly, the FCC caved to this temper tantrum in November, when it mandated that hardware makers, including manufacturers of personal computers, were required to build in equipment that will recognize broadcast "flags."

So beginning in July 2005 consumers can look forward to more expensive equipment that will not work with older equipment or media, and that explicitly reverses a trend toward the melding of computers with old-timey "stereo" equipment. As reason Contributing Editor Mike Godwin told PC World, "It's clear the scheme is fundamentally flawed." Yet we are stuck with it.

And so the open system of the PC, with a high degree of user control and futzability, is bypassed by government fiat. In its place we get a system that assumes viewers are thieves and movie producers are victims.

That sounds exactly backwards.