Why I Didn't Waste Money On A Blu-ray (or HD-DVD) Drive

Editor's Note:  In the digital world, the rights of the citizen are often cast aside in favor of the almighty buck. As consumers, we not only have the power to fight back, we have an obligation to ourselves and to each other to do so. The power is not only in our united voice, but is also in our wallets. Do you believe that it's time for us to speak out?


Bad Attitude

I have to admit, I went into the whole Blu-ray issue with an attitude. Among other things, it's a massive conspiracy to quash my Inner Tightwad.

I'm cheap. I'm not an early adopter. I like my stuff to work the first time. I prefer function to style. And I don't like to pay for stuff that can be had for free.

That's why I chose Linux as my target operating system along with MythTV (or Freevo—I haven't decided yet.)

As you recall, my software decision matrix:

Software Decision Matrix

In light of Digital Rights Management (DRM), however, I need to consider another issue: my conscience.

Why on Earth would I want to pay perfectly good money for an operating system like Windows Vista Home Premium, with poor real-time performance, when I can get Linux for free with adequate real-time performance?

But first, why does this all work (or not work, depending on your point of view)?


Gratuitous_Advice_1: Become rich and buy a media PC. Miss out on all the great conspiracy theories. Live longer.

As Christy aptly points out in her article on DRM, they really are out to get us. Normally I’d just call them all names like "greedy capitalist pigs” or “money grubbers,” except that those things mostly describe me, too. This is more insidious. They want control; they have money and do a lot of talking to lawmakers about the ‘tubes.

They don't get that the whole reason I wait to buy into new technology is that I prefer other people to be stuck with BetaMaxes or boxes of OS/2 in their garage. Not that I would ever have such things in my garage, of course.

So I've been waiting for the final say in the Blu-ray v. HD-DVD battle, and it's looking good for Blu-ray, probably because they have a cooler name. But just as it looks like the prices are going to come down a little on volume, I learn that I have to fork money out for software to get movies to play on my PC. This is enough to genuinely annoy a tightwad like me.

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The motivation behind DRM isn’t just some technical reason about security like some people claim; the real reason is that they don't trust me to not steal their movies. I like movies, so naturally I must be a criminal. And because they don't trust me, I have to pay more (than zero) for the capability to play a Blu-ray disc on my computer (hooked up to my DLP TV).

The root of the trouble is their insistence that they control the hardware pipeline all the way from the encrypted bits on the disk or thumb drive to the video monitor and speakers. Theoretically, this way they can enforce their copyright ownership but also add all kinds of interesting constraints to the media, including determining when and how you can listen to it.

Untrusted Computing

I blame the lawyers, of course—it’s usually a pretty safe bet that a lawyer’s behind stuff things like DRM. You see, it's like this: the people who make movies and music don't trust you. It's almost as if they are used to people just making copies of their priceless movie/music willy-nilly and spreading them all over the Internet. Or maybe they have a bunch of kids touching their stuff. In any case, they’ve chosen to solve this problem not by innovative marketing, but instead by taking possession of your computer.

Literally. They take control of a portion of your computer and you can't do anything about it except watch the movie. That you paid for.

This is known as “Trusted Computing.” That is, the content providers trust your computer to not let you steal their content. Some find it innovative; I find it obnoxious. To make this “trusted” computer do your bidding, they need control of critical elements of it. First they need control of the DVD (HD, BD, or any other kind of 'D'), preventing it from transferring data to, say, your hard drive rather than your video screen.

This is done with encryption—the data is decrypted just before it goes to your monitor.

Hey! But what if you write a fake device driver for windows so windows thinks it's a new screen? Then you can capture the raw pixels in all their HD glory straight to your disk. But I didn’t tell you that, in case anyone asks.

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Straight To The Disk

One of the things that I notice when I describe the Bad Thing (copying): it turns out that copying stuff is one of my primary purposes in my home media center. One of the major problems is that the kids are hard on DVDs; I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve had to replace a disc because someone used it as a Frisbee or hung it on the Christmas tree. I don't even own any BD or HD DVDs yet, but I'm sure the kids would trash them even faster.

I just want the entire video library on a big server. Is that too much to ask? Apparently it is. Under the DMCA it's illegal to decrypt DVDs in the US, even if you can claim fair use rights on the copy as a backup.

My evil plan is to cheat the nice motion picture employees out of their fair share of the kids-scratched-the-thing-to-death-again replacement market. But don’t you try it—it’d be irresponsible of me to suggest that you ignore bad laws.

In any case, the final bit of the secret pipeline in your computer is the graphics card. It needs to be designed so that a program can't just read the pixels back from the frame buffer after Windows puts them there.

There's a bit more to the frame buffer story.

The Pipe vs. Open Source

Ultimately, the content providers need control of your hardware from the bare disk all the way to the pixels in your monitor. To protect themselves from me (and you).

This situation is completely unfriendly to open source software. In order for the disk to keep its secrets, the software that reads the video data must have the secret decoder ring. Likewise, to lock the graphics hardware down, the drivers have to write secret codes to the video hardware. When software needs to keep secrets such as decryption keys and special secret hardware that you can't read back, it can't be distributed as source code because that would give away the secrets.

So, for now no Blu-ray on my media center.

It's a shame too, because HD (2.1 megapixels) has a lot more pixels than DVD (0.3 megapixels), and my Inner Geek is now in conflict with my Inner Tightwad.

Besides I don't own any Blu-ray disks, and I don't plan to until the providers lose the fair use battle or I move to a country where it's legal to hack your own hardware. I won’t even mention the fact that the discs themselves appear to be rotting away for a lot of consumers.

Final Temptation of The Inner Geek

Sanity check!

So I asked myself, “How bad do you really want to watch a Blu-ray disk?”

It was a good question too. It's all about the resolution. Standard DVD is a mere 720x480 where HD is 1920x1080. My Inner Geek tells me that 1/3 of a megapixel has to be over six times inferior to 2.1 HD megapixels, and it's absolutely sure to ruin my enjoyment of the movie experience.

Inner Geek can be persuasive, especially when it does math. But Inner Tightwad also has math skills and carefully steers my eyes to the corner of the garage with the, Boxes O’ Shame.

At this point, I must refer you once again to the decision matrix:

Notice that the added dimension is in the opposite direction as “cost.” Essentially, it represents that the ability to watch Blu-ray disks in true HD format with a free conscience has a cost. An arbitrary cost imposed by force, but a real one.

The cost of a clear conscience: $240 (plus whatever else software they sucker you into buying).

And the tightwad wins. There shall be no caving in to Redmond in this battle.

If only Inner Homer wasn't saying, “Uhhhhggggghg, megapixelssss.”


Confused about what you can, and can't, legally do with your digital data? Here at DVRplayground your rights are important to us. Get the scoop on DRM here, and learn more about your rights as a consumer!