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Fri 28
Jul
2006

Can you trust your toaster?

What Max Reckons You know what really bugs me? DVD players who think they know better than me. You know what I’m talking about. You put in a movie, you sit down, you press PLAY. Do you get your movie? No: you get long seconds, maybe minutes, of swirling menu graphics and copyright warnings. When you try to skip through this, up flashes up a little red circle with a cross through it, or the words “Operation Not Permitted,” or something similar.

“Not permitted”? Who is my DVD player to tell me what’s permitted? It’s my player, isn’t it? When I say “Skip,” it should say, “How far?” I mean, I’m not trying to break the law here. If I was, I could understand my DVD player having some moral qualms. But I just want to watch my movie.

(It’s the copyright notices that really annoy me. First, there’s something nuts about a legally purchased movie forcing you to sit through stern copyright lectures every single time you watch it, while a pirated version helpfully jumps straight to the action. Some DVDs even display copyright warnings in about two dozen different languages, giving you ample time to digest the, say, Swahili version, before leisurely moving on to Romanian. But even the full-motion copyright notices are bad. Australia has one with a pumping soundtrack and some crazy MTV-inspired camerawork—you know, so the kids will pay attention—while on-screen some naughty teenagers download movies. It takes them about four and a half seconds. I tell you what, if it took four seconds, I’d be doing it all the time. Especially if someone played a cool song while I did it.)

Apparently we are rushing toward a future in which control of technology is not handed over to us when we buy it, but retained by the companies that originally made it. Your DVD player, your computer, and your high-definition television seem to be on your side, but they’re really sleeper agents, with secret loyalties to their corporate masters.

There’s something called High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) sneaking in everywhere, and the plan is this: at first, it does nothing. But once it’s in enough homes, along come movies and television broadcasts that only play on HDCP-enabled equipment. Because that old non-HDCP television set can’t be trusted, you see—it might be doing what you want, instead of what the industry wants.

There seems to be no point at which an anti-piracy measure is deemed to cause more trouble to legitimate customers than it’s worth. For example, Australian commercial TV almost always run late, often by as much as ten or fifteen minutes, and the reason, according to one of the networks, is:

“Precise start times would allow people to burn DVDs of our programs like crazy and push them out over the internet.”

So millions of people are inconvenienced every day in order to make it slightly harder for eight guys with beards to burn copies of Battlestar Galactica.

I don’t have a DVD player any more. At least, not a typical one. I built a computer with MythTV and a DVD drive and hooked it up to my television. When I tell this puppy to skip, it skips. Loyalty. That’s the thing.