DVDs and a DRM-free future

I recently put together a document that answered common questions about ripping commercial DVDs for archival purposes. As expected, this sparked a fair bit of conversation in our forums—everything from How Dare You Reveal These Dark Secrets?! to I’m Not a Lawyer, But I Play One on the Internet to Butterflies (and Movies, Apparently) Should Be Free! And it’s just those kinds of comments that urge me to wander away from the technical side of the discussion and toe-dip into the editorial. Like so:

I believe most of us can agree that few of us like copy-protected media that limits our ability to use that media. In the case of DVD movies this means not having the ability to make back up copies for purposes specifically allowed under the Fair Use provisions of the U.S. Copyright code, the more-legally hazy reason that DVDs sometimes go bad and it’s nice to have a fallback other than buying your discs again, and the inability to play the movies you purchase on devices other than DVD players (your Mac, iPod, or Apple TV, for example). But what’s the alternative? Open the door to duplication and that same door lets in a horde of pirates.

Yet, as the music industry has nicely demonstrated, copy-protection and prosecution aren’t terribly effective. Pirates will be pirates and keel-hauling their youngest members does little except make their behavior more sympathetic. What seems to have worked, however, are measures of flexibility—and yes, the iTunes Store serves as an example of these measures. Make prices reasonable enough and digital rights management truly manageable, and the vast majority of people will choose to purchase media rather than steal it.

The movie companies are starting to get it. Studios issue select DVDs that contain digital copies of the movie along with the traditional burned-to-DVD copy. With that digital copy you unravel the bond to the DVD player, as you now have an additional copy that plays on portable media players such as the iPod and iPhone, on a set-top box like the Apple TV, and on your computer. Plus, you have the opportunity to back up that digital copy should the original go kablooey. (You can’t burn that digital copy to disc in such a way that it plays from the disc, but at least you’ve got a backup.)

But there are the inevitable lumps in the porridge. Not all digital copies play on all players—Disney, Fox, Paramount, and Warner make iTunes-compatible digital copies, while Sony favors its PSP. Digital copies are great for portability, but their quality isn’t the same as that of the original DVD. And just how “forever” is a digital copy when new iPods and other media players hit the streets every 9 – 12 months? Will the digital copy that plays so well today be more than indecipherable bits in five years?

What to do? Seems to me that the iTunes Plus music model is worth considering. Watermark the bejeezus out of movies you purchase with identifying information—information that survives conversion, if you please. Should you be dumb enough to share a movie and the studio watchdogs discover your lapse, it’s between you and that movie’s maker to explain how 15,000 copies of Batman’s Blushing Bride made their way to the Web. And while you’re at it, add a Rip DVD command to iTunes so we can easily create digital copies of the DVDs we own (and sure, watermark those copies too).

Could you find a way to remove that identifying information? Of course. The laws of behavior still apply: That which can be locked shall be unlocked by a 12-year-old boy. But we already have movies liberated from DVDs that can be spread across the Web. What differentiates now from someday is that with watermarked movies consumers have far greater choice in how they can play the movies they purchase. And if they have that greater choice, perhaps they’ll be less tempted to do the wrong thing.

It took the music industry the better part of a decade to figure this out. I’m hopeful the movie studios are a little quicker on the uptake.

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