Pay Up! For the Vista Content Protection Racket

On the Sopranos, the Mafia controls the docks, the garbage trucks, the cops, the judges — the very infrastructure of the lives of those who live in Jersey. You can’t get anything in or out without their “help” and protection. Well folks, thanks to Microsoft, our content will live in a cyberspace Jersey.

Microsoft Vista includes Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology that acts as an enforcer with regard to protected content: it will shut down worldwide any equipment connected to Vista that is suspected of enabling a breach of content protection, and disable playback of anything that smells of protected content on equipment not sanctioned by Microsoft. I am not making this up.

An extensive report on Vista DRM-atology — “A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection” by Peter Gutmann in New Zealand — describes in detail how Vista’s DRM has turned into Hollywood’s Offer That You Can’t Refuse. Here’s a quick summary:

A protection racket for Microsoft’s Vista-licensed manufacturers. Vista stops protected content from playing on devices that don’t have Vista DRM content-protection facilities built in. What, you just bought high-end audio equipment that uses the currently popular S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format) standard? Fuhgeddabout It! You won’t be able to use it with Vista and protected content. Here’s how Gutmann describes it:

Once a weakness is found in a particular driver or device, that driver will have its signature revoked by Microsoft, which means that it will cease to function (in informal terms, your device gets bricked, i.e. turned into a brick)… What this means is that a report of a compromise of a particular driver or device will cause all support for that device worldwide to be turned off until a fix can be found. If it’s an older device for which the vendor isn’t interested in rewriting their drivers (and in the fast-moving hardware market most devices enter “legacy” status within a year or two of their replacement models becoming available), all devices of that type worldwide become permanently unusable… If a particular piece of hardware is deactivated (even just temporarily while waiting for an updated driver to work around a content leak) and you swap in a different video card or sound card to avoid the problem, you risk triggering Windows’ anti-piracy measures, landing you in even more hot water.

A protection racket for protected content producers (Hollywood). Vista requires that any interface that provides high-quality output degrade the signal quality that passes through it if premium content is present. What, you expect your high-resolution monitor to show a crisp image? Fuhgeddabout It!  According to Gutmann:

This is done through a “constrictor” that downgrades the signal to a much lower-quality one, then up-scales it again back to the original spec, but with a significant loss in quality. So if you’re using an expensive new LCD display fed from a high-quality DVI signal on your video card and there’s protected content present, the picture you’re going to see will be, as the spec puts it, “slightly fuzzy”…  The same deliberate degrading of playback quality applies to audio, with the audio being downgraded to sound (from the spec) “fuzzy with less detail”. Amusingly, the Vista content protection docs say that it’ll be left to graphics chip manufacturers to differentiate their product based on (deliberately degraded) video quality. This seems a bit like breaking the legs of Olympic athletes and then rating them based on how fast they can hobble on crutches.

An endless scenario of security threats and reliability problems. Vista tries to detect hacks by looking for abnormalities in the hardware. Any little glitch that previously would have caused no change in operations — such as a voltage fluctuation or slight change in bus signals, or an unusual return code from a function call — can cause a system restart. What, you thought your Vista system would be more reliable, and that you wouldn’t need to pay more for protection? Fuhgeddabout It! Gutmann says:

Starting up or plugging in a bus-powered device may cause a small glitch in power supply voltages, or drivers may not quite manage device state as precisely as they think. Previously this was no problem — the system was designed with a bit of resilience, and things will function as normal. In other words small variances in performance are a normal part of system functioning. Furthermore, the degree of variance can differ widely across systems, with some handling large changes in system parameters and others only small ones… With the number of easily-accessible grenade pins that Vista’s content protection provides, any piece of malware that decides to pull a few of them will cause considerable damage. The homeland security implications of this seem quite serious, since a tiny, easily-hidden piece of malware would be enough to render a machine unusably unstable, while the very nature of Vista’s content protection would make it almost impossible to determine why the denial-of-service is occurring… Even without deliberate abuse by malware, the homeland security implications of an external agent being empowered to turn off your IT infrastructure in response to a content leak discovered in some chipset that you coincidentally happen to be using is a serious concern for potential Vista users.

A distribution channel controlled by Microsoft. The only reason Microsoft would go to all this trouble to set up such a restrictive DRM scheme is to completely own the channel and dictate terms to device manufacturers, content publishers, and consumers. Want an open alternative to the closed Apple iTunes model? Fuhgeddabout It!  According to Gutmann:

Not only will [Microsoft] be able to lock out any competitors, but because they will then represent the only available distribution channel they’ll be able to dictate terms back to the content providers whose needs they are nominally serving in the same way that Apple has already dictated terms back to the music industry: Play by Apple’s rules, or we won’t carry your content. The result will be a technologically enforced monopoly that makes their current de-facto Windows monopoly seem like a velvet glove in comparison.

So what has been the response to all this (besides a very funny cartoon by Philip Dorrell)?

Robert X. Cringely would have us all keep a stiff upper lip. “Digital Rights Management is really just an ecosystem for selling our own stuff to us again and again,” he points out in the I, Cringely column “Feeding Frenzy“: You should just get out your wallet. Vista is “entirely about getting people to buy new computers and that any lip service to upgrading current equipment is just that, lip service…”

If you want a Windows Vista media PC to deliver high-quality video and audio with no driver problems, just buy a new Windows Vista media PC from some big vendor like Dell, HP, or Sony and match it with other big-vendor stereo and video components that use strictly DRM-preserving HDMI connectors and therefore create no points of signal degradation along the path from hard disk to eye or ear.”

And yet, I agree with Cringely that Microsoft will ultimately not be successful, for two reasons:

Vista DRM will be cracked quickly. Cringely puts it best:

Vista [DRM] will fail because the job it is attempting to do is too hard, because Microsoft isn’t especially good at these huge integration jobs, and because there is a smart hacker community determined to break Vista [DRM] over and over again, which it will.”

Microsoft relies too much on Hollywood. Many of Vista’s DRM technologies exist because large movie studios, record labels and cable television networks want them. Meanwhile, user-generated content is on the rise while Hollywood’s content is becoming less important. The new content providers that gave YouTube its popularity, and the social networks that provide measurable niche markets, will have no use for DRM.

Matt Rosoff, lead analyst at research firm Directions On Microsoft, thinks that Vista DRM does not bode well for new content formats such as Blu-ray and HD-DVD, neither of which are likely to survive their association with DRM technology. As quoted in Computerworld’s “Vista and More: Piecing Together Microsoft’s DRM Puzzle” by Matt McKenzie, Rosoff says Vista DRM is “so consumer-unfriendly that I think it’s bound to fail — and when it fails, it will sink whatever new formats content owners are trying to impose.”


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