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After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours

I remember 8-track.

It dominated the mobile audio market in the late 1960's, but eventually lost out to the more flexible audio cassette format, despite better theoretical signal-to-noise specs than its competitor. Consumers opted for cassettes because they took up less storage space and could be fast-forwarded and rewound -- and because commercial, pre-recorded titles had fewer extended silences to compensate for "sides" of unequal length.

In other words, the market went to the product that met users' demand for convenience and flexibility, rather than the one that focused on mere technical quality.

History repeated itself with the Beta vs VHS format war. Despite the fact that Betamax retained its technical superiority throughout the features war that followed the introduction of VHS -- and despite the fact that, at least initially, there was little difference between the two contenders in price or in the available selection of pre-recorded titles -- the Sony format steadily lost almost its entire market share to the upstart VHS.


Mostly, it was a matter of Sony's reluctance to trade reduced recording quality for increased recording time. When Betamax was introduced, it offered only a single recording speed -- and a Beta tape could record only an hour's worth of material at that speed. By contrast, the VHS format offered noticably noisier, lower-resolution recording -- but double Beta's recording time.

That was long enough to fit most movies -- especially made-for-TV movies -- onto a single tape. And that made all the difference.

Sony stuck to its guns, convinced that home-videophiles would reward its focus on technical quality -- and watched its market share erode like a sand castle in a tsunami. By the time it finally responded to its customers' needs by offering extended recording times, it was too late -- the tide had irrevocably turned in VHS' favor.

In both cases, the primary considerations the losing product was designed to address were those of engineers, rather than those of consumers. They failed because the people who created them were so convinced that they knew what their customers really needed, that they simply ignored what those same customers told them they wanted.

The Greeks called it "hubris" -- an overweening pride -- and, in classical literature, it's a reliable precursor of a forthcoming fall from grace.

This all came up, because I recently went shopping for a DVD player. What I discovered in the process has convinced me that the DVD Forum -- the new name for the old DVD Consortium -- is headed for the same rocks upon which 8-track and Beta once foundered.

As far as I can tell, only part of the problem with the DVD "spec" is due to the exigencies of evolving technology. Still more of it is due to the nature of the DVD Forum itself -- which, as standards bodies go, is an example not just of letting the foxes into the henhouse, but of giving the foxes the deed to the henhouse and ownership of a string of fried chicken franchises, to boot.

To be precise, from the very beginning of the DVD effort, the primary design criteria for what has always been billed as the next big consumer medium have been the demands of the music, TV/video and movie-making industries for absolute control over the distribution and ability to make copies of DVDs, rather than the needs of the actual DVD users. And, although seven computer companies -- including IBM and Intel -- have recently joined the ten founding members of the Steering Committee (made up of Time Warner and nine of the world's largest consumer electronics manufacturers) their presence has done nothing to reduce the dominance of paranoia over pragmatism in the Forum.

Instead, they've added a whole new set of potentially fatal complications to the existing mess.

"Protecting" copyrights by denying ordinary users the ability to do what the industry calls "casual copying" has been a doomed strategy from the beginning -- the moreso because the Content Scrambling System encryption algorithm used by DVDs was developed under U.S. restrictions on exportable encryption that limited it to 40-bit keys. Since French graduate student Damien Doligez had broken Netscape's 40-bit encryption 19 months earlier, the handwriting on the wall was clearly visible by the time the DVD Consortium announced the 40-bit CSS in December, 1996.

In fact, it's a little surprising that no one bothered to crack CSS before the Norwegian hacker group called Masters of Reverse Engineering extracted an unencrypted key from the software-based DVD player WinXing and used it to decrypt another 170 keys and decode the CSS algorithm -- and to create a Windows-based DVD decryption utility called DeCSS. MoRE released DeCSS.exe November 1, 1999 -- and thousands of Web sites swiftly linked to or mirrored the utility, while thousands more published stories or links to stories about it.

The DVD Content Control Association -- the legal owner of the CSS algorithm -- promptly filed suit in California's Santa Clara District Superior Court against Andrew Thomas McLaughlin, 20 other individuals (including numerous other hacktivists and cypherpunks) and 500 John Does. The suit claimed misappropriation of trade secrets and requested a preliminary injunction forbidding the defendants from mirroring or even linking to the DeCSS binary or source code. The injunction was denied on December 29, 1999.

That didn't stop the moguls. The DVD CCA asked that its motion for an injunction be reconsidered. Meanwhile, on January 14, 2000, Disney, MGM, Paramount, Sony, Time Warner, Twentieth Century Fox, and Universal Studios, plus the Motion Picture Association of America filed suit in U.S. District courts in New York and Connecticut against Shawn Reimerdes, Eric Corley (who was also being sued in the DVD CAA case in his persona as "Emmanuel Goldstein," chief instigator of alt.2600) and Roman Kazan, for violation of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. The suit asked injunctive relief and monetary damages.

On January 21, 2000, Judge Lewis Kaplan granted a preliminary injunction in the New York case and, on January 24, 2000, after reconsidering his earlier refusal in the California case, Judge William J. Effing also granted DVD CCA's motion for a preliminary injunction -- however he forbade only mirroring DeCSS, not linking to copies on other sites.

Also on January 24, 16-year-old Norwegian Jon Johansen -- who had been the first to post DeCSS on the Internet, but claims he didn't write it -- was interrogated by local police, at the behest of the MPA, the MPAA's international counterpart. The cops confiscated Johansen's computer and cell phone, but declined to arrest him.

At this writing, neither case has yet gone to trial -- nor is either case likely to do so in the near future. The sad thing is that the DVD Forum, the DVD CCA and the MPAA are bound and determined to make a horrible example out of people who would happily buy a commercial DVD-playback product, if there were only one available for their preferred platform -- Linux. The problem is, the DVD CCA refuses to open the source for CSS, which makes licensing it for the Linux platform difficult.

Let's face it -- the CSS cat is entirely out of the bag at this point. Not only is the DeCSS source code available on an $18 tee shirt, but John Hoy, DVD CCA's president, even disclosed it its entirety in his declaration before the California court -- a public document.

Worse still, there are plenty of other DVD "rippers" out there -- and it's easy to make an exact digital copy of a DVD without ever having to decrypt a single byte. All that takes is a (still very expensive) video DVD burner and a blank, writable DVD, because decryption is only necessary for DVD playback, not for DVD copying. And, since writable video DVDs currently cost upward of $40 each -- substantially more than the purchase price of most DVD movies -- it's an extremely expensive way to pirate movies.

DeCSS merely allows Linux users to watch their own DVDs on their own computers -- something Linus Torvalds himself claims he does "all the time." Since the DMCA permits "reverse-engineering on the basis of interoperability," that appears to be a protected use under U.S. law. And it has been since January 17, 1984, when the Supreme Court ruled in Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios that consumers had an absolute right to videotape TV shows for their own, private use and enjoyment -- a right the DMCA doesn't abrogate.

In my book, the MPAA and the DVD CCA are simply being bullies. Foolishly so, since the country codes the MPAA so vehemently insisted be included in the DVD specification are, IMnsHO, a blatant attempt to restrain trade and a clear violation of U.S. antitrust law (country codes prevent DVD movies sold in the U.S. from playing in DVD players sold outside continental North America -- and vice-versa.)

I suspect that people who live in glass houses probably shouldn't throw subpoenas.

The current DVD spec is a mess. Because the dye used in CD-Rs doesn't reflect the 650nm wavelength of DVD lasers, (635nm in the DVD-R authoring spec,) CD-Rs are invisible to most DVD players -- and to some DVD-ROM drives, as well. Some DVD players don't even play commercial CDS particularly well -- especially those that are a little thicker than usual. They'll skip or the audio signal will cut out momentarily.

DVD audio itself is currently still a work in progress -- a work complicated by the Secure Digital Music Initiative's demands for still more encryption and copy protection.

The situation is due to get still worse, shortly. Unless someone comes to their senses soon, by 2001 or thereabouts there will be no less than five separate, mostly-incompatible recordable DVD-ROM formats on the market (DVD-R/authoring, DVD-R/general, DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW). That serves nobody's interests well -- not even those of the manufacturers, who have to guess at which of the five candidates will survive the judgement of the marketplace -- and particularly not those of consumers.

Then there's the whole issue of High Definition Digital TV. With pixel densities five times those of NTSC or PAL/SECAM video, H/DTV movies are going to eat up a lot more storage than current DVD technology can provide -- especially those that incorporate DVD features such as additional program material, alternate takes or additional scenes and 24-bit, 5-channel audio. They're going to need a lot more bandwidth to the video display, too.

Something needs to be done.

In the spirit of public service, my friend Evan "Mr. Bad" Prodromou, Managing Editor of the Pigdog Journal, has cooked up a little Windows program that strips HTML pages of Cascading Style Sheets. He's released it to the Internet community as an unsupported, open source program.

It's a 100-percent-legal utility that -- purely by coincidence -- just happens to have the exact same name as the MPAA's bete noir.

If you'd like to help the DVD Forum focus on the fact that the whole DeCSS imbroglio is simply distracting them from dealing with issues of substance, you might just want to link to Mr. Bad's brainchild. Heck, come to that, you might even want to mirror Mr. Bad's contribution to Jack Valenti's migraines. It's easy, it's free, it takes up hardly any space and -- come on, admit it -- it's even fun!

While you're at it, you might want to add a link to to the good folks at OpenDVD.org for the benefit of your Linux users who might want to watch DVDs on their computers. You might also consider linking to the permanent home of the DVD FAQ.

And don't give up quite yet.

Keep in mind that there's some good news. Most current DVD-ROM drives can now "see" CD-Rs. So can some relatively-inexpensive DVD players. The Apex AD600A DVD player will even play MP3s -- and it's less than $180, if you can find it in stock. Both its popularity and its price point bode well for MP3 compatibility -- and therefor, by definition, CD-R compatibility -- becoming a de-facto standard for DVD players in the near future.

In the meantime, I tried three different players from 3 different manufacturers before I finally settled on my Pioneer DV-C302D 3-disc changer. It doesn't offer that crappy Dulby Digital surround sound, and it doesn't have quite as many other features as I wanted, but it does play back my CD-Rs. That compatibility was crucial to me.

And, if you remember 8-tracks, it ought to be pretty darned important to you, too.

(Copyright© 2000 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)