Word broke last week that someone had found a way to unlock the AACS digital rights management (which is another way of saying “copy protection”) for the new high definition blue laser DVDs. These discs are “locked” using a key that is stored on the DVD. Someone discovered a way to find the key, which makes it possible to unlock any high-def DVD.
One key aspect of this news is that the techniques used do not appear to run afoul of the provisions of the Digital Millenium Act that prohibit reverse engineering among other strategies. In this case, the hacker apparently just looked at the contents of his computer’s memory as he played an HD DVD. And this past weekend, a company named SlySoft released their “AnyDVD” utility that exploits this new discovery; you can use it to “rip” an HD DVD so that you can store it on your computer’s hard drive. The company plans to release a version for Blu-Ray discs as well.
What makes this development so significant is that Hollywood studios are faced with some unpleasant choices. They could issue a new processing key for high-def DVDs, but that would cause all existing drives to be broken until their firmware is upgraded for the new key. And even then, there would be nothing to prevent someone from using the same technique to identify the new key. Another option would be to abandon efforts to copy protect high-def DVDs.
As I’ve said repeatedly, copy protection is a self-defeating approach for digital media. Sooner or later it causes the consumer more inconvenience than it’s worth to the publishers, and ultimately the content producers will have to remove it. Locks only keep honest people out; those who want to steal the content will always find a way to do so. But when the locks prevent people from using their purchase the way they want, where they want, and when they want, those restrictions will begin to chafe eventually. The discomfort level was reached quickly with Sony’s misguided root kit protection on some of their audio CDs last year, and based on Steve Jobs’ statements, we’re getting there now with Apple’s iTunes. Now it appears that we’ve hit it even before high-definition DVDs have had much of an impact on the market. I don’t support the theft of copyrighted information, but I don’t think that copy protection belongs on our music and movies, and consumers will vote with their dollars for systems that are easy to use, unencumbered by locks and all of their intended and unintended consequences.