October 10, 2008 | By Fred von Lohmann

Why Hollywood Hates RealDVD

Why does Hollywood hate RealDVD so much? Here's a hint: it has nothing to do with piracy and everything to do with controlling innovation.

Earlier this week, a district court in San Francisco extended the temporary restraining order (TRO) blocking RealNetworks' distribution of its RealDVD software, at least until a full-dress preliminary injunction hearing can be held sometime in late November. Although reporters have done a good job reporting on the hearing, they have not answered a more basic question: why does Hollywood care so much about RealDVD in the first place?

It's not about piracy. After all, those who want to copy DVDs have plenty of free, widely available, easy-to-use software to choose from (e.g., Handbrake, DVD Shrink, Mac The Ripper). And those who want to skip the tedium of DVD ripping altogether can easily download movies from unauthorized sources like The Pirate Bay. In short, Hollywood can't possibly believe that the $30, DRM-hobbled RealDVD software represents a piracy threat in an environment rife with easier options.

So why unleash all the expensive lawyers to kill RealDVD? Answer: to send a message about what happens to those who innovate without permission in a post-DMCA world.

As we've said for years, DRM systems like the Content Scramble System (CSS) used on DVDs are not principally about preventing piracy. Rather, DRM is the legal "hook" that forces technology companies to enter into license agreements before they build products that can play movies (Hollywood lawyers candidly admit this "hook IP" strategy). Those license agreements, in turn, define what the devices can and can't do, thereby protecting Hollywood business models from disruptive innovation.

This arrangement reverses the previous innovation status quo. Where non-DRM'd content (e.g., books, broadcast TV, the CD) is concerned, innovators do not have to ask permission before building new products that can copy and play copyrighted works (e.g., the photocopier, the VCR, the iPod). But where DRM'd content like DVDs are concerned, Hollywood intended the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions to slam the door on that kind of disruptive innovation. After the DMCA, technology vendors would have to ask permission, sign licenses, and make concessions, if they were going to build things to play DRM'd Hollywood movies.

So it's not that Hollywood implacably hates personal use format-shifting and space-shifting -- rather, Hollywood wants to make sure those new features happen on Hollywood's terms ("pay us again"), on Hollywood's timetable ("later"), and only after valuable concessions have been wrung from technology companies ("watermark detection, compliance & robustness requirements, down-rezzing").

That's why RealDVD is such a threat. By reading the existing CSS license carefully, Real (and Kaleidescape before it) found a way to create a new product category without first getting permission from (and paying obeisance to) the Hollywood studios. Real's defection represents a threat to several schemes that Hollywood has been working on for throttling DVD innovation over the next several years. For example:

  • Managed Copy: Hollywood has been negotiating for years with technology companies over "Managed Copy," a mechanism that will allow limited copying of DVD and Bluray discs onto PCs and portable devices. "Managed Copy" has been promised for years, yet has not materialized, thanks to power struggles inside the organizations that run the relevant DRM licenses (DVD-CCA for DVDs, AACS-LA for Bluray). In the course of these negotiations, Hollywood has managed to wrest several important concessions from technology vendors (including requiring that computers do watermark detection to spot pirated copies when reading data from Bluray discs, and imposing DRM on resulting copies). If those technology companies can build things like RealDVD and Kaleidescape under the terms of the existing contract, then the prospect of more negotiations and concessions for Managed Copy suddenly seems much less appealing.
  • Digital Copy: Hollywood has begun selling DVDs that come with a second disc that permits the making of a copy on a PC. The catch? You have to pay extra for the right to make this personal use copy -- in other words, Hollywood is stealing your fair use rights and selling them back to you piecemeal.
  • Internet Download Services: you already bought it on DVD, but now Hollywood wants you to buy it a second time from iTunes, Amazon, or MovieLink if you want to watch the same movie on a PC or iPod.

So that's the real story here. It's not about piracy. It's about Real defecting from the DRM licensing cartel, building what consumers want now instead of negotiating endlessly for a spot in Hollywood's next Five Year Plan for the DVD format.

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