The latest front in corporate America’s war on the future is a pointless little spat with RealNetworks over their relatively lame RealDVD technology. RealNetworks is a corporate citizen in good standing, or wants to be, they play ball with the DMCA, DRM and all that crap as much as they can. But that’s not good enough for the MPAA who don’t want their customers making back-up copies of their legally purchased DVDs, no way no how.
The studios argue that the software allows video pirating. The program was launched at the end of September and let consumers copy DVDs that could then be played on up to five computers per user.
Seattle-based RealNetworks has said the software does not remove or alter the “content scrambling system,” or CSS, encryption that is included on commercial DVDs. It filed a suit against the studios at the same time they brought their joint suit against the company.
The thing people miss in these intra-corporate scuffles is the implications of letting incumbent media companies manipulate government processes via easily influenced judges and law-makers that give them utter arbitrary power over the distribution of information. First they came for our MP3s, then they came for our DVDs….do we really want these precedents being set in an era when all information — even text — is moving to digital?
In case you’re really in suspense about the rights and wrongs of this issue, here’s the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s take on the deal:
Why does Hollywood hate RealDVD so much? Here’s a hint: it has nothing to do with piracy and everything to do with controlling innovation.
Earlier this week, a district court in San Francisco extended the temporary restraining order (TRO) blocking RealNetworks’ distribution of its RealDVD software, at least until a full-dress preliminary injunction hearing can be held sometime in late November. Although reporters have done a good job reporting on the hearing, they have not answered a more basic question: why does Hollywood care so much about RealDVD in the first place?
It’s not about piracy. After all, those who want to copy DVDs have plenty of free, widely available, easy-to-use software to choose from (e.g., Handbrake, DVD Shrink, Mac The Ripper). And those who want to skip the tedium of DVD ripping altogether can easily download movies from unauthorized sources like The Pirate Bay. In short, Hollywood can’t possibly believe that the $30, DRM-hobbled RealDVD software represents a piracy threat in an environment rife with easier options.
So why unleash all the expensive lawyers to kill RealDVD? Answer: to send a message about what happens to those who innovate without permission in a post-DMCA world.
As we’ve said for years, DRM systems like the Content Scramble System (CSS) used on DVDs are not principally about preventing piracy. Rather, DRM is the legal “hook” that forces technology companies to enter into license agreements before they build products that can play movies (Hollywood lawyers candidly admit this “hook IP” strategy). Those license agreements, in turn, define what the devices can and can’t do, thereby protecting Hollywood business models from disruptive innovation.
This arrangement reverses the previous innovation status quo. Where non-DRM’d content (e.g., books, broadcast TV, the CD) is concerned, innovators do not have to ask permission before building new products that can copy and play copyrighted works (e.g., the photocopier, the VCR, the iPod). But where DRM’d content like DVDs are concerned, Hollywood intended the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions to slam the door on that kind of disruptive innovation. After the DMCA, technology vendors would have to ask permission, sign licenses, and make concessions, if they were going to build things to play DRM’d Hollywood movies.
So it’s not that Hollywood implacably hates personal use format-shifting and space-shifting — rather, Hollywood wants to make sure those new features happen on Hollywood’s terms (“pay us again”), on Hollywood’s timetable (“later”), and only after valuable concessions have been wrung from technology companies (“watermark detection, compliance & robustness requirements, down-rezzing”).