Disney, Fox, DIVX and Blu-ray

July 19, 2006

DVIXBefore I even get started, I want to be perfectly clear that my intention here isn’t to draw performance parallels between DIVX and the Blu-ray, as humorous as that might be it wouldn’t be fair or accurate. What I am interested in are the (ostensibly) eerie similarities in how the Blu-ray Disc Association pitched their superior DRM abilities to the movie studios and how the DIVX backers touted similar DRM advantages to many of those very same studios. (Above left: Circuit City CEO, Richard Sharp excitedly pitching his doomed DIVX format)

For those of you who have either erased the painful memories of DIVX from your psyche or are just too young to remember the failed format, here’s the CliffNotes version. Back in 1998 Circuit City and a group of law partners who represented clients in the music industry, film studios and television, introduced a video-disc format that was to compete with DVD, I use the word compete in the loosest sense.

The basic idea behind DIVX was to sell rental discs; yeah I know that sounds bizarre in 2006 but in a nutshell that’s what the format amounted to. The DIVX Wikipedia article sums it up much better than my memory ever could:

“DIVX was a rental format variation on the DVD player in which a customer would buy a DIVX disc (similar to a DVD) at a low cost, which would be able to be freely viewed up to 48 hours from its initial viewing. After this period, the disc could be viewed by paying a continuation fee, typically $3.25. DIVX discs could only be played on special DIVX/DVD combo players that needed to be connected to a phone line. DIVX player owners had to set up an account with DIVX to which additional viewing fees could be charged”

As I’m sure you can imagine this premise went over like a lead balloon with consumers, the idea of renting a movie for $4.49 when Blockbuster offered them for significantly less and had a larger selection to boot, just didn’t fly. Not to mention the idea of all those spent discs filling up landfills…

DIVX was dead by mid 1999. Ok even if you were unaware of all of this, you’re probably not the least bit surprised that such an obviously superior format (I couldn’t resist) flopped and flopped hard. Consumers just didn’t want those type of restrictions imposed on them, especially given the fact that many of the DIVX discs themselves were inferior to their DVD counterparts.

Another thing you may be unaware of was the studio support behind DIVX, while they didn’t have every studio on-board, they did have three exclusive heavy hitters, namely Disney, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount Pictures. How on earth did DIVX wrangle in such heavyweight support for their format you ask? Three words, Digital Rights Management.

The studios weren’t very keen on the idea of not making any money from DVD’s after the initial sale, and they somehow thought that millions of Americans would buy-into the idea of not actually owning their purchases. Apparently the studios believed that DIVX was just what the doctor ordered, well that and a stiff shot of DRM.

How all of this applies to Blu-ray:

Which as you may have surmised is my point here, DRM. It’s often speculated that one of the reasons the Blu-ray Disc Association was able to wrangle in Disney, Fox and MGM’s exclusive backing, is Blu-ray’s superior DRM, but at what cost? Listen I wont even pretend to be an anti-DRM fanatic, I realize that studios need to protect their content and piracy has to be reigned in, but after hearing the HD DVD podcast from Xbox Live’s Major Nelson, I got curious about the DRM capabilities of BD+ and well, what I found was a bit startling.

This is where things get a tad technical and a bit strange so bear with me here. Both Blu-ray and HD DVD incorporate AACS but Blu-ray adds a second, (third if you count digital watermarking) measure of DRM via BD+. Sony’s explanation of BD+ is described as “a Blu-ray Disc specific programmable renewability (sic) enhancement that gives content providers an additional means to respond to organized attacks on the security system by allowing dynamic updates of compromised code.”

I wasn’t able to find much in the way of definitive (plain language) information about how DRM is handled through BD+ sans a few references to BD+ being a derivative of Self-Protecting Digital Content. (SPDC) However it appears as if this little gem of a copy protection system can be updated, so no more DVD ‘Content Scrambling System’ debacles (CSS was cracked in October 1999).

No dearies, BD+ will have the ability to regularly update its protection algorithms possibly via auto-insert updates on Blu-ray discs and most definitely from user initiated firmware upgrades. Blu-ray players could potentially have two digital rights management schemes checking the same disc, before the disc passes for play. Fun stuff indeed, which brings me to my next question, what if AACS believes the disc to be in compliance but BD+ doesn’t? do these two knuckleheads even talk to each other, or would that defeat the purpose….

Apparently the extra layer of DRM BD+ provides was pivotal in gaining Fox’s support and according to this description from Afterdawn.com, theoretically gives studios the ability to “restrict Mandatory Managed Copy”. Am I the only one that finds the phrase ‘restrict Mandatory Managed Copy’ a bit of an oxymoron? Ok probably so but it doesn’t exactly sound like something the EFF would approve of.

Anyway, back to BD+’s origins for a second, apparently SPDC is capable of something called “title-specific security logic” yeah, ok I don’t even want to speculate on how that one works, I’m picturing all sorts of hilarity ensuing with that one. But the real worry behind a player that incorporates both BD+ and AACS DRM is the fact that these two organizations are completely separate from one another, yet from all outward appearances are charged with managing the same disc.

Since Blu-Ray was never submitted to the DVD forum for consideration much less approval, we can only speculate as to what their reception of BD+ would have been. Ah but SPDC in combination with AACS was submitted for approval in June of 2005 and was rejected for “undisclosed reasons”. Could one of those reasons simply have been, the combination of two self sufficient DRM schemes was just too much to expect the consumer to bear?

Oh but it gets even better:

In another completely absurd bit of DRM hilarity, An official Sony PDF titled “An Overview of BD-ROM Security System” mentions the term “Virtual Machine based Renewability system”. Anyone familiar with virtual machine line-code, knows that vulnerabilities exist in such a system.

Let me get this straight, the Blu-ray Disc Association sold Fox (among others) a second tier of DRM that might actually facilitate line-code hacks and potentially provide pirates a back door into Blu-ray encryption? Truth is stranger than fiction doesn’t even begin to describe this stuff.

Alright enough rambling about Blu-ray and all of its superior digital rights management and back to DRM in general. DRM should obviously protect the studios and their respective copyrights but when does all this cross the line into absurdity?

AACS by all appearances was more than enough to satisfy Warner, Paramount, Universal and New Line Cinema, by the way as of November 2004 these four studios collectively represented 45% of the DVD’s released in the United States alone.

So I suppose the real question is, what exactly did Disney, Fox and MGM gain by this marriage of DRM to format? And more importantly, how can consumers know exactly what kind of DRM we’re buying into with a system that by its developers own admission is “dynamic”?

(Special thanks to Bill Hunt at The Digital Bits for the use of the DIVX kiosk image. Admittedly it’s not super relevant to the articles focus, but it’s damn hilarious to see someone so enthusiastic about a format, that would be dead some 6 months after the photo was taken)



Posted by Bryan Greenway | | Filed Under Blu-ray


Comments

  • Richard Matthews

    Blu Ray and Warner sucks because they really believe they can stop piracy when in fact they already pirating Blu ray disc as we speak. Warner decision to go exclusive with Blu-Ray is to support the high end cost the internet access can be more profitable than the already existing HD DVD because it an open source and wont have security aspects inbedded in them. That the main reason for the added space for the Blu Ray not for video or audio quality but for added security measures from the Studios. Suck it Up and swallow

  • Richard Matthews

    Blu Ray and Warner sucks because they really believe they can stop piracy when in fact they already pirating Blu ray disc as we speak. Warner decision to go exclusive with Blu-Ray is to support the high end cost the internet access can be more profitable than the already existing HD DVD because it an open source and wont have security aspects inbedded in them. That the main reason for the added space for the Blu Ray not for video or audio quality but for added security measures from the Studios. Suck it Up and swallow

  • Dave

    Funny that the DVD DRM has been cracked, they’re not, comparatively, very high quality, and studios made and are still making a fortune on them. DVD ISOs can easily be compressed and downloaded off of any number of sites–but studios are still making money. Most people like owning the movies they enjoy–in the best format possible. Studios should be more concerned with offering worthwhile and affordable content.

  • Dave

    Funny that the DVD DRM has been cracked, they’re not, comparatively, very high quality, and studios made and are still making a fortune on them. DVD ISOs can easily be compressed and downloaded off of any number of sites–but studios are still making money. Most people like owning the movies they enjoy–in the best format possible. Studios should be more concerned with offering worthwhile and affordable content.

  • Dave Mueller

    Great article. Great, but scary.

    What has always amazed me-and continues to amaze me-about DRM is how hard the studios go about what is essentially a fruitless task. All this effort is spent to make sure I don’t burn off a digital copy of a DVD to a buddy of mine who hasn’t seen the movie yet (when, instead, I just lend it to him), when the real piracy takes in a totally different sector of society-be it the high-end hackers or overseas professional pirates. And those people have very spohisticated systems and have managed to crack every DRM system that’s come along.

    So they spend all of this effort to make things difficult for the consumer who-at worst-is going to make a copy for a guy at work (who may or may not have gotten around to renting it on his own), but they make little headway against the organizations that are actually costing them money.

    It makes me wonder what the true motivation is behind these DRM schemes-unless deep down they believe one of them will work. Don’t they see the writing on the wall? There’s always going to be that percentage of attrition because of piracy. Its just part of the cost of doing business-like an acceptable level of loss in a retail store. It ‘s just part of life in that world.

    And don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating pirated DVDs. Not at all. I’m just saying the the DRM schemes don’t really affect the pirates-they affect the consumer. Especially if they talk about subverting the Mandatory Managed Copy. Do we always want to move physical discs from room to room for the rest of our lives? Or do we want to start a movie in the family room, and then pause it and resume playback in the bedroom when you start to feel tired? The server based entertainment experience is the future. The studios are fighting the inevitable.

    Damn them! I would boycott them…if they didn’t produce all the pre-recorded entertainment I like to watch : )

  • Dave Mueller

    Great article. Great, but scary.

    What has always amazed me-and continues to amaze me-about DRM is how hard the studios go about what is essentially a fruitless task. All this effort is spent to make sure I don’t burn off a digital copy of a DVD to a buddy of mine who hasn’t seen the movie yet (when, instead, I just lend it to him), when the real piracy takes in a totally different sector of society-be it the high-end hackers or overseas professional pirates. And those people have very spohisticated systems and have managed to crack every DRM system that’s come along.

    So they spend all of this effort to make things difficult for the consumer who-at worst-is going to make a copy for a guy at work (who may or may not have gotten around to renting it on his own), but they make little headway against the organizations that are actually costing them money.

    It makes me wonder what the true motivation is behind these DRM schemes-unless deep down they believe one of them will work. Don’t they see the writing on the wall? There’s always going to be that percentage of attrition because of piracy. Its just part of the cost of doing business-like an acceptable level of loss in a retail store. It ‘s just part of life in that world.

    And don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating pirated DVDs. Not at all. I’m just saying the the DRM schemes don’t really affect the pirates-they affect the consumer. Especially if they talk about subverting the Mandatory Managed Copy. Do we always want to move physical discs from room to room for the rest of our lives? Or do we want to start a movie in the family room, and then pause it and resume playback in the bedroom when you start to feel tired? The server based entertainment experience is the future. The studios are fighting the inevitable.

    Damn them! I would boycott them…if they didn’t produce all the pre-recorded entertainment I like to watch : )

  • cgw

    I bought my first DVD player years ago from Bestbuy instead a DIVX player from CC. The reason you mentioned in the article is the precisely why I did not see the advantages of DIVX. I used to like Blu-ray for its capacity reason, but now I like HD-DVD more and more.

  • cgw

    I bought my first DVD player years ago from Bestbuy instead a DIVX player from CC. The reason you mentioned in the article is the precisely why I did not see the advantages of DIVX. I used to like Blu-ray for its capacity reason, but now I like HD-DVD more and more.

  • Brian Hoyt

    This article brought up the memory of the other DRM like DVD scheme Disney came up with. The bio-degrading self destruct disc – http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,58883,00.html. It has been a few years since that flopped even worse than DIVX, so I guess it is time for the next.

    The other interesting thing is I believe I read that the initial Samsung player out now doesn’t support BD+ (along with other half-baked BD standards). What happens then to that player once BD+ discs are released?

  • Brian Hoyt

    This article brought up the memory of the other DRM like DVD scheme Disney came up with. The bio-degrading self destruct disc – http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,58883,00.html. It has been a few years since that flopped even worse than DIVX, so I guess it is time for the next.

    The other interesting thing is I believe I read that the initial Samsung player out now doesn’t support BD+ (along with other half-baked BD standards). What happens then to that player once BD+ discs are released?