Why Sony’s Latest DRM Fiasco Is Probably A Good Thing

Sony should win a lifetime achievement award for its efforts to help raise consumer awareness about the problems inherent in DRM technology. It seems like every time the company attempts to “innovate’ in the area of DRM the effort backfires in a manner that ends up demonstrating just how bad DRM can really be.

Sony’s latest misadventure involves recently released DVD titles that are reportedly unplayable on a number of widely available DVD players, including several of the company’s own models. The problem originally gained attention on an Amazon forum when consumers began to compare notes about their inability to view the film Stranger Than Fiction.

Initially Sony denied there was a problem. Technicians at the company’s consumer help line explained that Sony had implemented a new form of DVD copy protection and that it was up to the manufacturers of individual DVD players to upgrade their firmware. The same Sony help technicians also explained that there was no timetable for the release of a firmware update that would allow Sony DVD players to play the new Sony DVDs.

It wasn’t so long ago that Sony ran into problems when it attempted to protect standard audio CDs with a new copy protection scheme. As DRM disasters go, the Sony rootkit fiasco was a bad idea to begin with. With only a few exceptions consumers have never had to deal with DRM on audio CDs. Thanks to Sony, it’s likely that we’ll never see widespread implementation of DRM on standard audio discs.

DRM on DVDs is quite a bit different, however. As Steve Jobs notes, video content has always been copy protected. While the Content Scramble System (CSS) doesn’t actually protect DVD content, at least the protection scheme works across devices manufactured by different companies. Sony has essentially managed to break one of the few DRM systems that is relatively device independent. In the process, they’ve probably enlightened more than a few consumers about the problems of DRM — consumers who may never have thought seriously about the issue otherwise.

If there’s a punch line to this story, it’s this: Several SlashDot readers reported that they were able to view the DVDs by using widely available DVD ripping software to transfer the disc content to their PCs. That’s right, Sony’s new DRM system is incompatible with some Sony DVD players AND it is does nothing to prevent users from ripping the content to an unencrypted digital format. Talk about worthless technology.

As a final note, yesterday Sony apparently admitted that this whole issue is the result of a recent update to a secondary DRM system that the company uses in addition to the standard CSS copy protection system. Sony will apparently be modifying (and hopefully testing) the secondary DRM system. The company has indicated it will be replacing discs that consumers are unable to view.

6 Responses to “Why Sony’s Latest DRM Fiasco Is Probably A Good Thing”

  1. Jim says:

    Of course, one of the things that happens in a situation like this is that, unlike CDs — some people don’t necessarily play DVDs within a short period of time after purchase.

    It seems to me that DVDs are closer to books in that regard: you purchase them fully intending to watch them, but maybe not immediately. The point here is that it may be weeks, months, or even years before some people discover this issue. Or am I projecting? Maybe we are just an anomaly, and everybody else rushes their DVDs home to watch them, or at least test their compatibility?

    For example, we have a Sony DVD player, and we just bought Stranger Than Fiction this past weekend. Obviously, now I’m going to check it out when I get home from work today, otherwise who knows when I would have discovered this issue.

    Had I not heard of this issue, and the disc was unplayable whenever we actually got around to watching it months or maybe even years from now, would Sony still be willing to replace it?

    Probably not, and that would have been that: a defective product that I had no recourse for, and really had no good reason to be defective except for corporate paranoia.

  2. Scott says:

    The new DRM doesn’t seem to have done any good, as far as preventing unauthorized duplication. The ISO image I downloaded off Usenet worked perfectly!

    For what it’s worth, I liked the movie and I suppose I’ll buy a legit copy at some point. Like maybe when they release a non-DRM’d version that I know will work on my player.

  3. Jim says:

    Just to follow up: the version of Stranger Than Fiction that we had purchased this past weekend seemed to play fine on our machine at home last night.

    Didn’t watch the whole movie, but skipped past the trailers and got to the menu, as well as the 87,645,359 warnings and messages that they put prior to the start of the movie (and make watching the DVDs of Seinfeld somewhat painful, since they do the same thing in front of every single goddammed episode), and started the movie.

    So we, at least, don’t have this problem. Lucky, I guess.


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