When is DRM not DRM? When it’s Cinavia

At NAG Online we’ve had several posts in the last few weeks about piracy. I said it was a service issue, Chris said it only serves to irritate legal owners and I’m going to chime in from another angel from something that’s been grating me for ages. I hate copy protection on discs almost as much as I hate losing my hair and to many consumers it feels like a losing battle when they can’t legally (or easily) back up anything they’ve bought to play on other system or for posterity purposes. At the head of that push to irritate the crap out of you today is Cinavia and HDCP. Boy, oh boy, do I hate these two technologies.

Credit to: XKCD
Credit to: XKCD

As XKCD roughly drew it out, HDCP is a copy protection scheme devised and updated by Intel. Its a technology that protects the audio and video streams of the content you’re playing off the disc and it aims to see to the end of people bootlegging content off a legal copy, the same way we used to record music tracks off the radio onto tape, or running a VHS recorder through another VHS recorded and into the TV.

As in the above picture, you can pop in a Blu-Ray disc into your PS3 and connect it up to your TV using HDMI. but if your TV is not HDCP-compliant, the content will be blocked, forcing you to rent or buy the DVD version of your copy of whatever it is you watch at home. HDCP is a protection scheme that forces you to buy new hardware in order to watch that Blu-Ray copy of Animal Mating Rituals HD narrated by David Attenborough.

From that moment on, Johnny knew that Intel was not a corporation interested in making his HTPC experience hassle-free.
From that moment on, Johnny knew that Intel was not a corporation interested in making his HTPC experience hassle-free.

I was working in retail a few years ago and in the shop we had two Samsung 23″ monitors with HDMI inputs. One was HDCP-compliant, the other was not. Unknown to me, the latter screen was sold to a customer that wanted something to use for his PS3 while at work. Note that the screens were otherwise identical in features and physical shape, but the HDCP-compliant model was R500 more, a costly expense over an already-high R2500 purchase. When the customer came back and asked my boss why it wouldn’t work, I explained the situation to both of them. The customer, not satisfied with the requirement that he had to spend even more money to make things work, paid in the extra money reluctantly. This is how the standard earns manufacturers more money.

HDCP isn’t even the biggest problem either. I sold two HTPCs later on and the customer had Blu-Ray drives fitted into them, along with a low-end Radeon graphics card to handle the HDMI output. Knowing he would have playback issues with Windows, I suggested he buy two copies of PowerDVD because it handled Blu-Ray playback well enough to not be a nuisance. He returned two months later and told me he had stopped using the machines and had sold one off. The hardware worked perfectly, but PowerDVD’s updates weren’t timeous enough to make playback hassle-free. You win some, you lose some.

Sometimes he would rent a movie only for the playback to glitch out or the chapters to go missing. Even with what was the perfect HTPC setup at that time, he still had issues. He eventually had to rip them to his hard drive and re-code the video and audio streams for them to work in VLC. But it got worse back in 2009, when the Blu-Ray consortium approved something that they figured would annoy legal owners everywhere, driving them to near-outrage: Cinavia Content Protection, an update to the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) that was already protecting Blu-Rays since 2005.

You see that? This is the industry showing you the finger.
You see that? This is the industry showing you the finger. I made this picture big on purpose so that it gets all up in your face.

Cinavia has been around since 1999 under a different name, the Verance Copy Management System for Audiovisual Content (VCMS/AV). It’s been used in the industry for ages, even in the VHS era, for copy protection. Cinavia’s current implementation plays from within an audio source and works over a digital or analog connection. It introduces anomalies in the sound and can be picked up by the human ear and the software protection schemes that use the audio to figure out if the device playing the content is legally licensed to do so, or if the source is on an original disc.

In other words, Cinavia messes up with your movie experience just to make sure that you’re not pirating it. It cannot be removed digitally and is even picked up in audio recordings of the source material, meaning that it’s played in movie theatres where those shady characters who record the movie on their iPad tape it. When you play that taped copy on a device that is Cinavia-compliant, it stops the video, mutes the audio and tells you that the device you’re using to play the recording is not licensed to do so.

Now, these two technologies more often that not frustrate the legal users. Do you know that if you output content from a Cinavia-packing Blu-Ray from your PS3 to two audio sources (HDMI and the RCA plugs) that you can trigger the error if the software doesn’t approve of your setup? I’ve seen some people with HDMI splitters have the same issue. Do you know that you can’t rip that same DVD into a ISO file for streaming to your PS3, because it’s not from the original disc? You could be one of those guys who buys the Blu-Ray movie before downloading a ripped 1080p copy in a MP4 format for use on your Samsung Smart TV and you’ll still get the error.

Cinavia might make pirating the content a little tricker, but it’s easily subverted. Its the legal users who want to make backups of their discs that have the most hoops to jump through. Allow me to show a picture that illustrates the reason why a legal user might want to rip their Blu-Ray copy of a movie they bought from Look & Listen:


That’s not even an exaggeration. I owned a DVD copy of The Day After Tomorrow and, no kidding, there were twelve minutes of unskippable trailers before you even got to the main menu. Twelve minutes. My parents bought the DVD because I’m a major fan of the movie and I expected to be able to just pop it in and start watching. Wasting twelve minutes of my life on crappy trailers? That’s the reason why I don’t go to the cinema anymore!

I went to watch James Bond: Skyfall at Walmer Park in PE and I saw adverts from Fruit and Veg and Vodacom. I don’t know why people put up with it, it’s impossible as a movie buff to sit through it and not gouge your eyes out. With the decline in the quality of the movie theatres, I’m pretty certain there might be someone who’ll say its a conspiracy to make the experience of going out crap and make us stick at home as a form of mind control.

You guys might thing I’m ranting about nothing, right? How do you think the PS3 owners, who bought the device because it was the perfect streaming device, felt when the Cinavia DRM was added into the 3.10 firmware, unannounced and unknown to anyone until they had it in place and it was added into later versions of the PS3’s hardware booklet? How do you think the owners of set-top Blu-Ray players with LAN ports and streaming ability felt when their legitimate content was blocked following a firmware update that didn’t mention Cinavia being added?

If anyone’s paying attention to this, do you know why the Blu-Ray standard won the race? Because HD-DVD’s protection systems used to deliver Cinavia were an opt-in for publishers and hardware manufacturers, not a requirement as it the case today for Blu-Ray players. With Blu-Ray, they can push anything onto you as they like. If your version of Cinavia on your Blu-Ray player is out of date and the disc won’t play, they don’t care – they have your money already.

Its the same issue with companies removing features from devices you bought just because they feel like it. Oh, they come up with excuses but most of the time they can’t or won’t explain why they’re robbing you of something you previously had. Like the Linux “Other OS” feature on the PS3 which gave companies the option to use the consoles as server farms for parallel work on the cheap without buying into licensed systems from IBM. Or the option to copy certain PSOne games you bought off the PSN to your PSP. Its not just Sony – Apple removed the option to use Google Maps once they pushed their own mapping application that is so horribly broken, it even persuaded iPhone 5 owners to ditch iOS and move to Android. Facebook forces Timeline on you whether you like it or not.

north korea apple maps

Blocking legitimate users with Cinavia only serves one purpose, really – to make the console the default media hub and to slowly destroy the HTPC market with online streaming services. Sure, you can still run your HTPC as usual, but there’s more hoops to jump through. Unless you have DTS-compatible hardware, or like to wait for a recode to finish mixing in a DVD audio stream into your Blu-Ray rip, making the whole experience much less stellar because you don’t have the money to replace everything to become DTS-compliant. With enough time you too will have to subscribe to a streaming service to get everything working and even then, you’ll probably be driven to piracy eventually because you can’t get the stuff you want – right there and then it solves the service and playback issues for you and it didn’t cost a dime either.

I’m not kidding when I remark on Facebook that without piracy the music and movie business wouldn’t be where it is now. Without it, they wouldn’t have a reason to enforce all these stupid protection schemes upon us, forcing those who can’t be bothered to circumvent them to become paying customers. I’m not saying you should pirate because that’s not the answer either. Piracy just goes to show that you don’t care whether someone has put hard work into something you enjoy and it’s existence today just keeps the vicious circle going round and round. We have an industry today that’s primarily concerned with just getting your money from that first sale and keeping it. That’s why consoles are priced super-high on launch, why new PC games cost upwards of R400 and why publishers refuse to remove DRM because they believe it’s actually working.

As we all know, though, it very seldom works without bothering legitimate users. And that’s why I loathe HDCP and Cinavia, not because they exist, but because their implementation is far from ideal.

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