DRM degrading Windows

Mark Pilgrim had linked to “A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection” by Peter Gutmann, but until I heard people talking about it on a podcast, it really hadn’t clicked as to why The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history.

The content ‘protection’ involves fairly draconian measures, but I hadn’t realised what the impact could be for other systems, not just Windows.

Change from an open platform

The Security Now podcast interviewed the author of the article (transcript). This was the section of Microsoft documentation that summed up the change in direction:

It is easy to write software for it [Windows] because all the interfaces are well defined and published. And there are many good software tools available. The PC buses are also well defined, and anyone can design cards to plug into these buses. The openness of the hardware platform is essential to a vibrant PC ecosystem. In the current world, however, the industry is also working to prevent hackers from using that openness to pirate copyrighted content. The goal is to make the Windows-based PC a safer place for premium content, so that content providers will be happy to allow Windows-based PCs to play their content.

The stated aim is to make the new system (Vista and associated hardware) less open. According to Gutmann, Microsoft want to demonstrate to Hollywood that they’re really, really committed towards content protection.

The type of things you may notice with a new Vista install are:

  • For viewing High-Def (HD) content such as HD-DVD or Blu-ray, the graphics card needs to support HDCP, a proprietary DRM mechanism, which includes encryption keys.
  • Using non-protected mechanisms like S/PDIF (fairly standard for CD and other audio) may mean your sound is disabled.
  • Without an HDCP enabled graphics card and display, premium content would be degraded. Viewing on an analogue (i.e. VGA) output will be intentionally fuzzy.
  • The graphical sub-system restarting if it detects something dodgy, (possibly including fluctuations due to cheap hardware).

Another couple of telling comments:

  • you’ve got this huge layer of bloat sitting in there, intercepting all audio and video output and content output and processing.
  • the current processes simply don’t have the horsepower to do both video processing and encryption of high-bandwidth content.

You’ll notice that these things primarily affect ‘premium content’, such as the new HD formats. The worry for me is how long it is before you can only get the HD versions of things (mainly films I assume), and have to use these DRM encumbered systems (and encumbered definitely sounds like the right term, with all the performance issues associated with it).

There isn’t any point in using the new formats unless you have a full HD chain of hardware/software.

Effect on graphics cards

Device manufacturers are also having to show commitment to preventing copying of ‘premium material’, including keeping certain parts of their systems secret:

the language in the spec is kind of wishy-washy. It doesn’t say you can’t publish any specs at all. It simply says that some aspects of the device will have to be kept proprietary. But that’s kind of nasty for anyone writing open source software because, if you’ve got a graphics card, you need to know exactly how it works in order to write the drivers for it. And if half the thing is undocumented, it becomes very hard to support it properly.

It’s one of the recurrent themes on LUG radio, there are bugger all open-source graphics drivers. The changes graphics cards makers are having to make could drive the nail into the coffin of that possibility. There are (relatively) open alternatives, but I don’t know how good they are for games.

A second podcast from Security Now on the topic explores more of the Microsoft documentation, and aspects that imply your drivers could be revoked if Windows suspected tampering.

I ask quite a lot from an operating system, the main thing being that I can use formats that are interoperable, and preferably open. After that, it is a tool to act on that content, be it emails, films, documents or pictures. The more effective and easy to use it is is, and the less you have to maintain it, the better. For me, OSX has the best balance at the moment, but if a Linux distro offered as good an interface and hardware integration, I would be swayed.

Presumably Apply & Linux will have to jump through similar hoops, I just hope they can do it with less impact on the rest of the system.

Combine the content and performance issues with the insane activation scheme, perhaps Vista isn’t going to stem the (admittedly small) flow from Windows.


4 contributions to “DRM degrading Windows

  1. whether they like it or not, apple will have to include similar crippling in their OS to be allowed to play HD-DVD. i don’t believe there’s any way around that one. and their monitors etc will have to include HDCP support as well. this is all thanks to the movie industry…to remain in business, device manufacturers will have to abide by their rules or risk being completely cut off from legally running the new “premium content”…
    ho hum!

Comments are closed.