A MacBook Surprise: View-Protected Content

In case you haven't heard yet, let me be the one to break the bad news to you: Apple's new MacBooks and MacBook Pros, with the new Mini DisplayPort, come with some heavy DRM (Digital Rights Management) baggage. As covered at ars technica, Apple has included High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) -- or DisplayPort Content Protection (DPCP), as it may be more accurately called in this case (sorry for all the jargon) -- in the hardware of the new MacBooks.

To understand what this means, let's back up a bit: Video files (such as movies or television shows) that are tagged to require HDCP hardware will not show up on any display that is not HDCP-compliant. Some of the video content currently sold in the iTunes Store already have these tags. Older Cinema Displays (the new LED Cinema Display is an obvious exception) are not HDCP-compliant. Most other existing third-party displays and projectors are similarly non-compliant. Add it all up and this is what it means:

If you purchase a HDCP-tagged movie from iTunes and attempt to view it on one of these non-compliant displays connected to your new MacBook or MacBook Pro, you'll get an error message informing you that you are "not authorized" to do so.

Apple didn't alert the public to this new restriction when it released the new MacBooks. As far as I know, it still has not commented on the matter. Not surprisingly, many owners of these new laptops have been upset, outraged, and/or infuriated (the exact adjective depends upon which article you read) to discover this.

At this point, you may be wondering: Why? If you have legally purchased a movie, and can play it on your computer, why should you be prohibited from playing it on an external display? The vernacular name for DRM is "copy protection" not "view protection."

My answer is simple: You shouldn't be prohibited. However, I realize that the entertainment industry has a valid concern here. As explained at this site, HDCP was created as a "copy protection scheme to eliminate the possibility of intercepting digital data midstream between the source to the display." In other words, if a movie were allowed to go to a non-compliant display, there is a risk that an intervening piece of equipment could be illegally copying the movie as it goes along. And that's what HDCP is designed to prevent.

Eventually, so the argument goes, as people replace their older equipment with new HDCP-compliant equipment, this will become a non-issue. For the moment, the "authorization error" described here is an unfortunate consequence of the HDCP protocol.

That's the best devil's advocate case I can make in defense of HDCP. Personally, I tend to regard the existing copy-protection situation, from region codes for DVD players to HDCP, to be a mess -- a mess that too often prevents me from doing things that I should clearly be allowed to do with movies that I legally own. The HDCP in the new MacBooks is just the latest case in point.

Overall, Apple's position has leaned toward enforcing as few restrictions as possible without alienating the entertainment industry altogether. I'm not privy to what went on behind the scenes here -- but the situation with these new MacBooks appears to be a step away from this position.

In the short run, I would like to think that Apple may find a way to at least partially undo the damage here. But, realistically, I don't believe they will. In the long run, I believe these onerous forms of copy protection will die out altogether. I only hope I live to see that day.

[Update: posted November 26, 2008] Apple released QuickTime 7.5.7 yesterday (currently available via Software Update for new MacBooks). It should now allow non-HD protected content to play on any external display. I guess I should have had a bit more faith in Apple.