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Microsoft defends consumers’ rights

Posted by Richard on October 6, 2005

No, really. Stop laughing. I’m serious. Last week, Intel and Microsoft announced their support for Toshiba’s HD DVD format for high-definition DVDs over Sony’s competing Blu-Ray format. This news was a welcome shot in the arm for HD DVD, which seemed to be on the ropes after Sony lined up a lot of content providers behind Blu-Ray.

As an HD aficionado (I love my Samsung DLP TV and just want more HD content!), I was vaguely familiar with the pros and cons of the two formats and acutely aware that a war between competing formats, a la VHS vs. Betamax, would slow consumer adoption significantly. As usual, Sony seems to have a (theoretically) technologically superior product. But Blu-Ray has some serious real-world disadvantages compared to the HD DVD format. Chief among these is a radically different mastering and manufacturing process, still unproven, that will cost at least ten times as much per manufacturing line as the simple, evolutionary changes needed to manufacture HD DVDs. Not only is manufacturing Blu-Ray discs much more expensive, but the industry would have to maintain parallel Blu-Ray and standard DVD maufacturing lines for many years of transition.

On the other hand, HD DVD backers propose a simple, cheap migration path that will speed consumer adoption greatly: existing DVD plants can easily be adapted to manufacture "hybrid" discs that have a standard definition DVD on one side and an HD DVD on the other. Consumers can buy such "future proof" discs for their current SD DVD player, knowing that they won’t have to replace them when they move to HD.

But in my opinion, the real winning argument for HD DVD, and the point on which Microsoft won’t back down, is a concept called Managed Copy. According to Ken Fisher at ars technica, Blu-Ray may or may not be technically capable of supporting Managed Copy, and if it is, it will be optional; the HD DVD spec makes it mandatory.

Managed Copy is an extension of digital rights management (DRM) that attempts to restore consumers’ fair use rights. Right now, it’s illegal in the U.S. to copy a DVD, even for your own personal use, but it’s possible because the CSS encryption scheme was "cracked" some time ago. The next generation, whether Blu-Ray or HD DVD, will have far tougher copy protection called the Advanced Access Content System (AACS). Managed Copy works within AACS to enable you to legally make a copy of your HD DVD.

The Managed Copy spec requires content providers to let users make at least one legal copy. They can charge for it if they want, although Microsoft is hoping they’ll make the first one free. The AACS control mechanism is flexible enough to allow a variety of options regarding number and type of copies. So, for instance, you could copy your HD DVD to your Media Center PC’s hard drive for streaming to any TV on your home network. Or maybe you could copy it to a portable player.

If you hate the current state of DRM and content providers’ short-sighted and heavy-handed attitude toward fair-use copying, then you’d better hope HD DVD wins this format war.

And thank Microsoft for looking out for us little guys. Really. I mean it. Stop laughing, dammit.

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