The idea behind copy protection is admirable, in a Plato's Cave sort of way. Ideally, all of this trickery would foil any and all attempts to make unauthorized copies of the material on the disc, while proper, paying customers could watch their movies, play their games, and enjoy whatever other content is on there without as much as a hiccup. This ideal state of affairs is just a dream, though.
When Sony (NYSE: SNE ) designed the Blu-ray disc standard, it built multiple layers of copy-protection into the format. Hollywood loves this stuff, and the extra protective measures may have helped decide the Blu-ray versus HD-DVD wars. Sorry, Toshiba, your standard wasn't obtuse enough. More on that in a moment.
The latest evidence of this restrictive security model's ultimate failure comes from Samsung, where the firmware (software required to run the player) for some of its Blu-ray players needed an update in order to "improve a specific BD title's playback capability." This in itself is a needless hassle created by a flawed standard, but it gets better. Worse. You know what I mean.
That seemingly benign update promptly disabled many titles from two leading content providers: Time Warner (NYSE: TWX ) subsidiary Warner Bros. and Vivendi/General Electric (NYSE: GE ) property Universal Studios. Somewhere in the process of improving the experience with one title, several others were broken.
Who's to blame?
I don't blame Samsung for anything other than shoddy quality assurance testing before publishing this update. Blu-ray is an insanely complicated standard, and I'm frankly surprised that the players work as often as they do. Roll back to the previous update instead, and you'll get your Warner and Universal love right back. Besides Samsung, you often have to update the software for Sony's own Blu-ray players to play the latest and greatest new discs. Panasonic (NYSE: PC ) is in the same boat, as is Philips (NYSE: PHG ) and Sharp and many others. It's not just Samsung's problem.
Neither is it really Sony's fault. The company did what it had to do in order to appease the studios and win that pesky format war. All is fair at Hollywood and Vine, and Sony took some extreme measures. Congratulations -- you won!
No, the blame for this fiasco falls squarely on Hollywood. It only takes a quick online search to find downloadable copies, ripped right from a Blu-ray disc, of Warner's "The Hangover" or "Inglourious Basterds" from Universal, or pretty much any movie ever released on the format.
Fighting a losing battle
Copy protection and digital rights management is, as the WOPR computer tells Dr. Falken in WarGames, "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?" Sure, every new security measure makes the pirates sweat a little bit -- but you can rest assured that they will find a way around it. Who's really suffering? Fully paying customers.
Meanwhile, both studios and their technology partners spend time, effort, and money on these hair-brained schemes that fail in the end. That drives prices up to nobody's benefit, except maybe the security researchers who get paid for doing the dirty work.
So what -- do nothing?
I'm not saying that the studios should simply give everything away for free, and there's even a real-life precedent today for how the issue should be handled: Steve Jobs raised eyebrows when Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) let its iTunes music store run wild and free in the unprotected MP3 format. That show is still playing, and digital music sales never dropped off a cliff. Instead, iTunes is now the biggest music market anywhere -- and iTunes customers get to play their legally purchased songs anywhere the ubiquitous MP3 format is accepted.
If catching or otherwise foiling the pirates is of paramount importance, every download could be watermarked with a trackable code that's invisible to the end user. That way you can catch the perp with a minimum of fuss and effort. Wouldn't that be the perfect outcome?
This is exactly the way to do it: Give consumers a solid reason to buy content because your online store is so much nicer than Pirate Bay, or your selection is unmatched in the industry, or maybe you get a foot massage with that $50 download. Provide something that's better than pirated entertainment, and consumers will leave the scallywags behind in a heartbeat. Pricing isn't everything.
Fourth and goal
I thought Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS ) was catching on to this fact three years ago, but the House of Mouse still insists on full protection. Warner Home Video head boss Kevin Tsujihara seems to get it, but corporate red tape and decades of unbreakable tradition are holding him back from launching a wholesale revolution. Someday, one of these pockets of sound reasoning will go all out and prove to the rest that today's model is far from optimal.
Have you had enough of this insanity yet, or is digital rights management the best thing since sliced sushi? Discuss in the comments below. You know which side I'm on.