Big Content Still Doesn't Get It

by Paul William Tenny

provider-directv-logo-big.gifEric Bangeman writing for Ars Technica wrote yesterday about a change coming in April in the way DirecTV's satellite receiver/DVR combo will treat pay-per-view recordings. As has been feared ever since a bug in a TiVo software update triggered a "lockdown" of sorts on programming that would only remain on the system for 24 hours before being automatically deleted -- whether you wanted that to happen or not -- it seems that DirecTV has caved to outside pressure and implemented precisely this type of content control, effective April 15th.
Any PPV program you record will only remain available on the DirecTV DVR (digital video recorder) for 24 hours, regardless as to whether or not you've actually watched the recording, before it is deleted by the system. Bageman notes that such restrictions are in fact typical with download services from Apple, Amazon, and NBC. This type of finite control over content is reminiscent of the failed marriage between pay-per-view and DVD rental, attempted by a company ironically named Digital Video Express (DIVX) in 1998. The discs were designed to become physically unplayable after 48 hours due to the way they were manufactured, eliminating any need to return the disc and preventing you from simply keeping it for your own collection. While innovative, the idea didn't resonate with consumers and the company quickly imploded.

These types of draconian measures to control the consumption of entertainment media are nothing new. The movie studios banded together in the 80s to stop Video Cassette Recorders (VCR) from becoming widespread. The studios argued the principle purpose of the device was to make illegal copies of their property, and allowing them to flourish would almost certainly destroy their businesses. Thirty years later, these businesses have found themselves relying almost entirely on the home video market for their profits, and look quite the fool for their efforts.

Lessons apparently unlearned, these exact same companies are still trying to exert a level of control over the content that consumers pay for that would turn consumer/owner into just another piece of property to be controlled. When the TiVo bug showed people just how much control DVR manufacturers had over a device that is quickly becoming a necessity in our lives, the company sought to reassure consumers that features such as these were only designed to keep people from making permanent recordings of pay-per-view events. No further justification was given for why this was necessary, although it's not hard to guess.

The question now is what promises will be made that restrictions such as these will limited to PPV events, and subsequently, will those promises be kept.

As a tech-savy consumer, I rejected this system of control several years ago by building my own DVR made entirely of commodity PC parts. Together with an off-the-shelf video capture card, I have all the functionality of a TiVo or DirecTV integrated unit for about the same cost, with none of the restrictions now, or at any time in the future.

This path is not for most people -- it requires a solid understanding of PC hardware, networking, and trouble shooting techniques that cannot be solved with a phone call -- but the advantages are many. Although I subscribe to the DirecTV service, I will never be in a position where the company I buy programming from can tell me what I can and cannot do with it (within the law of course.) It is fundamentally not their place to act as the copyright police in my own home, with hardware that I've bought and paid for. While I do sympathize with the plight of piracy, Bangeman astutely pointed out that these types of restrictions have little to do with preventing intellectual property theft at all.

Instead, with DirecTV, Apple, Amazon, NBC, and other content providers (acting as proxies for the content producers, and seek to benefit financially from the results) are using one market to protect the viability of another. If you could record a pay-per-view movie on a DVR in perfect digital quality, and keep it there for as long as you like, there is then no incentive to buy the DVD, or rent it, or watch it again on network television.

These kinds of rights management are designed to protect some sources of revenue from other sources, even though a certain segment of the public has a clear preference for digital delivery. It does not and cannot protect that content from being copied -- at least not yet.

Because of the Supreme Court decision that made VCRs legal, along with other case precedent, it is widely recognized by federal authorities, the tech industry, and the courts, that consumers have a legal right to make copies of certain things purely for personal use. If you get DirecTV, or Comcast, then you have the legal right to attach a VCR to your cable box or satellite receiver and record any and all programming -- just so long as you only make those recordings for your own personal use.

The studios stubbornly disagree, and have argued unsuccessfully that consumers have no such right to make copies for personal use. That disconnect is emblematic of how the content producers and the content consumers view the content itself. It's true that the producer owns the copyright, which is by definition the unchallenged right to make copies (or not to make copies at all), but it is also widely recognized that consumers have rights to use the content in a "fair" way that benefits them, without threatening the content owner's business.

As we've seen with the legal fight over VCRs (and later, MP3 players) the content producers would prefer a business ecosystem where consumers never own a permanent copy of the content at all. They sell DVDs and enrich themselves greatly from them only because they lost the fight against Sony. Just as they did decades ago, they continue to use the law (DMCA) and pressure on other businesses to enact restrictions that prevent -- whenever possible -- consumers from owning anything at all.

I do disagree with Bageman's assertion that the inevitable result of these draconian measures is piracy. It is inarguably a result, but it is not the only one. This author saw the writing on the wall and opted out of this system of control with nothing more than a little ingenuity and a couple of hundred dollars. I believe that to be the inevitable result of this kind of asphyxiating climate, where all consumers are treated as another cog in the business machine, existing only to serve the profit goals of the corporate parent.

Many people take offense when their devices allow corporations like movie studios to step into their living room, and dictate to them what they can and can't do with their own stuff. Taken to their two logical conclusions, either piracy will escalate and the studios will lose even more money until they are simply inviable, and go bankrupt; or, more people will opt out of the system, and a new ecosystem for content storage and time shifting (record now, watch later) will spring up to accommodate the will of the people. We had thought DVRs were this new ecosystem, and yet two of the biggest players have begun tightening the screws on consumers, reminding them that this system of control is going to be far more difficult to avoid than previously thought.

I find my DVR essential to my well being -- as many owners will agree -- but it is obviously not the solution to the problem, nor are lawmakers that consistently bend to the will of the corporations that would love nothing more transform all media from rent to own, into rent, rent, and rent some more.

If there ever was question about how badly the content producers "just don't get it", it has finally been answered. They are digging in for a long, self-destructive fight that will result in the kind of consumer revolt that ultimately killed off the DIVX format, one that is also fully capable of killing the billion-dollar studio system that produces all movies and television as we know it. The further they reach into my living room, the more tempted I will be to protect my consumer rights. For me, that means rejecting the DirecTV DVR, and TiVo, and all the others in favor of an open Home Theater PC (HTPC) that allows me to stream everything I record over a high-speed network to any connected device on my home. I can and do burn programs at will. I can even play DVDs and stream music on it.

And best of all, my DVR never tells me no.

Most people won't be driven to these extremes, but they'll make their voices heard with their wallets. People will not buy crippled devices and rather than costing the studios money -- the companies that own the content and force these decisions through pressure -- you'll end up seeing DirecTV, TiVo, and consumers paying the price.

This is actually the inevitable result of what a corporation exists to do. Make money at all costs, which usually means annoying consumers and disrupting relations with other companies, all the while ignoring the things (such as making consumers happy) that actually makes them money in the first place. The greed-first mentality is the entire reason for a business to exist, and yet as can be plainly seen every year with every new technological revolution, it will always be exploited to make everybody unhappy.

These new restrictions have the singular purpose of returning pay-per-view movies to a rental business model, to protect the point-of-sale business model, regardless of what consumers actually want. The companies don't care, and the government doesn't care, even though actions such as these are probably illegal to begin with -- they are certainly of questionable wisdom. Until one or the other wakes up, this is what we're stuck with for the foreseeable future.

And it'll probably just get worse.

[Nod: Ars Technica]
in Business, Digital Media, Feature, Television


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2 Comments realize, right - that you just gave somebody else a perfect idea to make a whole lot of money?
No, most people won't build a DVR themselves...but they WILL pay someone else to do it for them!
I know, I know - not your thing but still...
On April 15 we lost more than control of our PPV content. A Macrovision signal has been added to ALL standard analog TV output from the DicerTV tunner. It is now impossible to record any programming on an attached DRV/DVD writer.

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