Editorial: For the umpteenth time, copy 'protection' only hurts people who actually buy your product

It's been said so many times, but I just got stung hard by the DRM bug, and since there's a "Senior Associate Editor" next to my name somewhere I get to complain about it. Now, if you're a regular consumer with a modicum of common sense, nothing I'm going to say here will come as a surprise or revelation. You're welcome to come along for the ride, but I'm pointing my quivering pen today at the media execs and their willing technologist accomplices that have the nerve in 2010 to enforce HDCP and other completely inane DRM and copy protection schemes to "protect" their content from theft:

You idiots.

Let me tell you my story. I bought one of your movies on iTunes. It's called "An Education," and I've heard very good things. Sure, $15 is a lot to pay for a movie I'll probably only watch once or twice (no rental option was available), but I was stuck in an airport and desperate for something decent to pass the time with. After reading a profile on Carey Mulligan in Vogue at the Hudson News I was completely smitten and decided to watch her Oscar-nominated role no matter the cost. Since my laptop was out of battery, iTunes was my only option, and I attempted to download the movie directly to my iPad. Unfortunately, you can't start watching a download on the iPad until it's completed, and the slow airport WiFi only had me 2/3rds of the way before I had to board my flight.

Typically I wouldn't complain about not being able to download a movie on my airplane flight home, that's historically been an internet free zone, but despite that blessed Gogo Inflight Internet being available on my particular flight I still managed to encounter frustration in my quest to watch my film of choice: the port through which my iPad was attempting to download "An Education" over was apparently blocked, so I streamed some other movies over Netflix instead. Such a difficult life I lead.

After returning home at last, where my speedy connection quickly had the film downloaded at last, I decided that the iPad screen was just too small to truly enjoy the film. I had paid $15 after all, might as well get my money's worth! In my infinite wisdom I had purchased an iPad to VGA adapter along with my iPad which I had yet to use, so I fished it out of its packaging and plugged my iPad into my TV.

OK, if you were skimming to the good part, here it is:

"Cannot Play Movie," my iPad reads. "The connected display is not authorized to play protected movies."

I can't even begin to state my indignation. Who is this possibly helping? The only content that has this sort of protection is the sort of content that has been paid for directly. I'm not the first to be bitten by HDCP, and I won't be the last, but boy does it suck when it's not something metaphorical you're complaining about and instead something real poking you in the eye. And of course, only suckers like me who actually do their best to pay for their media will ever encounter the problem.

Us idiots.

An alternative route: I choose from one of many versions available for free and speedy download on the internet's many torrent sites. Can you believe that, movie company that I don't care to learn the name of? Despite your best efforts to frustrate your users, someone managed to rip your movie and share it with everybody! Never saw that coming, did you?

Somehow they found a way!

On a personal note, I think illegal media sharing, stealing, is bad for content producers and morally wrong. I don't buy into any of these arguments that people who steal are "taste makers" that get their friends to buy stuff, or the "stuff is too expensive / I'm too poor" whine. If it's not worth that much to you don't buy it, but not being able to afford something is no excuse to steal. But how can content producers ever hope to compete pushing paid wares if stolen content is easier to obtain, view, and dispose of? You don't have to back up your purchase, that movie is always in the "cloud"; you don't have to transcode your AAC+ file to MP3, it comes that way; you don't have to worry about HDCP ruining your life, like it ruined mine.

So I downloaded the torrent and pulled the movie over to my iPad to play with the newly released VLC. Oh, guess what? Apple won't let third party apps use the VGA output.

I guess that makes me the idiot?

Paul Miller eventually managed to view his film of choice by streaming his illicitly obtained torrent of the movie to his Xbox 360 using the excellent Connect360 for the Mac. He will not be asking for his $15 back.

Update / addendum: Okay, a few things have come to light. First off, apparently there are some video players and other third party iPad apps with VGA out. I wasn't able to find any at the time of writing (I looked), but apparently I didn't look hard enough!

Also, there are of course some shades of subtlety to the DRM argument that I might have glossed over in my anger. For instance, subscription music services are very difficult to imagine existing without DRM. I know I'm too lazy to cancel my subscription two out of three months and then download all the new stuff on the third month, but I'm sure it would be abused. At the same time, I had actually taken to canceling my subscriptions with Zune and Rhapsody due to my inability to get the music onto my device of choice at my bitrate of choice. Luckily, MOG has fixed this for me, and I'm hypocritically "benefitting" from DRM as we speak.

I guess you could say that DRM, when implemented perfectly (I'd say the closest we've gotten is the excellent Kindle system), is no burden to the paying consumer, but it's rarely implemented perfectly. However, DRM is rarely, if ever, a burden to the pirate.

For those of you who are using this post as a jumping off point for talking about the legality or excusability of copyright infringement, that's totally within your right (and usually pretty entertaining), but my main point here is the reality of living with DRM. For an idiot, like me, it's not easy.