Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Speedbumps, DRM, and Macrovision

There's an interesting article by David Shamah in the September 6 Jerusalem Post titled “DRM Dummies?” In it Shamah describes how the Macrovision protection in his video camera prevented him from using the camera as part of a chain of devices to copy old family videotapes to DVD. (The camera incorrectly decided the signal coming in from his VHS tapes were “copyrighted” and automatically shut down.)

This goes into the file called “unanticipated consequences of DRM.” Even if we assume for now that the type of DRM being implemented here is of the relatively “unintelligent” variety – that is, the Macrovision implemented in the camera could not tell the difference between a family VHS tape and a VHS tape containing a copyrighted Hollywood movie – at least two unintended consequences have occurred.

First, Shamah's efforts to convert his old VHS tapes to DVD have been delayed. Perhaps that means that the money he might have spent on buying blank DVD's has been delayed, or maybe – depending on their condition – the original VHS tapes have deteriorated even further. Maybe he was just trying to send a relative some old video in a more convenient format. Who knows. At a minimum, it's a hassle.

But what if there had been a need to convert, say, privately recorded corporate training programs to DVD? Then perhaps some significant time and money might have been lost, and then it wouldn't have sounded so benign (especially if the boss was standing outside the studio door tapping her foot).

This is not to say that I am dismissing the hassle caused a family man converting old tapes to DVD. I'm sitting here looking at a stack of old VHS tapes of my kids when they were little and I'm wondering what I'm going to do with given I don't have a functioning VHS machine hooked up any more. I had been thinking of my son's portable video recorder but will that have the same problem as Shamah experienced?

Shamah also recounts the second unintended consequence: to make his recordings he goes out and buys a “Macrovision bypass device” that essentially cancels out is video camera's built in restrictions. That way he can copy the old VHS tapes onto DVD without triggering the camera shut down. But now he owns a device that will allow him to effectively bypass the Macrovision signal that is present in copyrighted movie videotapes. Hmmm – is that what the video camera manufacturer had intended?

I know there are some DRM supporters who will say, “Well, the DRM here is just the “speedbump” variety that can be overcome easily by someone with the knowledge and skill. That's not the person we're really targeting.”

I resent this argument. Just because I'm trying to do something legal doesn't mean I deserve to be treated as a criminal, even if there is only a “minor inconvenience” involved in jury-rigging a solution. My private time is valuable too and I don't like someone out there throwing “speedbumps” in my path.

But multiply this many times. How much time and money are being wasted by people figuring out ways to circumvent DRM in perfectly legal situations? (I don't want to get into a discussion of anti-circumvention laws here.)

One view some copyright owners might have (although you will not hear this expressed too loudly) is that they don't really care as long as overall sales don't suffer. Another view is that such inconvenience costs are really unimportant since those costs are being shifted away from the producer and distributor anyway and don't show up as a line item in the cost of doing business. A third view is that smart people are able to overcome the speedbumps easily enough but that most people aren't that smart andare deterred by the speedbumps.

Ultimately, manufacturers and vendors have to behave in their self interest. The manufacturer of Shamah's video camera, for example, must think that the hassles caused a few customers are outweighed by the benefits and that the license fees paid to Macrovision are worthwhile.

But just as a market has developed for region-free DVD players, won't a market for DRM-free devices develop? What kind of an "unintended consequence" would that be?


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