Weekly News Roundup (7 March 2010)

I wrote that DRM article that I mentioned I might do in last week’s WNR. The article looks at the various kinds of PC gaming DRM and whether they good or bad. The conclusion seems to be that none of them are piracy proof, some not even remotely close, and they all have varying degrees of being annoying to legitimate customers. But I think there are some compromises that can be made by both sides, more by consumers though, since to me, it seems consumers are having to pay a high cost to give game companies the false sense of security that DRM offers. Quite a few interesting news stories this week, so let’s go through them, especially given the late nature of this update (and no, I did not forget to press the “Publish” button).


In copyright news, Ubisoft’s new DRM, which was the reason why I wanted to write a blog on PC gaming DRM, has officially released the first game, Silent Hunter 5, that uses the new “constant Internet connection required” DRM system.

Silent Hunter 5 Box Art

"Permanent Internet Connection Required" - It's always not a good thing when you have to put a huge warning sticker on the box of a game

Unfortunately for Ubisoft, their new, expensive, controversial DRM system was cracked in less than 24 hours. Ubisoft issued an immediate denial that their DRM system had been cracked, saying that while it had been cracked to the extent that the game now works without constant online verification, certain sections of the game was still locked. Ubisoft also quickly released a patch to fix several issues, and to no doubt make the hack ineffective, but the patch it self was cracked in even shorter time. And no doubt, the certain sections that haven’t been cracked will be given time. It is interesting reading Ubisoft’s own FAQ on the new DRM system, which I also referred to in my PC gaming DRM blog, when asked what will happen if they cease operation of their DRM authentication servers, which then makes these games unplayable. Instead of saying that they don’t plan on to ever cease operations, which would be a lie anyway, they said that if that happens, they’ll release a patch to make these games playable without the DRM server. Which means if Ubisoft can release a patch that removes the DRM checks, then so can hackers, so Ubisoft’s insistence that their DRM can’t be hacked is, by their own words, not possible. And yet, legitimate consumers are the ones that are most affected by the badly designed DRM, and just how many have used it as a reason, or excuse, to go down the illegal route, we’ll never know.

The controversial ACTA global copyright treaty, being discussed in secret, has had yet more leaks that reveal just what each country at the negotiation table are trying to get out of the treaty. Before we get to the leaks though, I would just like to address the secret nature of the negotiations. Sure, these type of things goes on all the time and nobody really cares, and for the most part, the ACTA negotiations are only slightly more interesting than watching paint dry. But there are some important things being discussed that will affect all Internet users, and it’s a shame to see the whole thing being kept secret, even given the numerous leaks. It appears some of the European countries wanted the secrecy, the US is citing national security, although nothing so far has suggested anything of that sort being discussed (it’s hard to keep national secrets when you’re in discussion with so many other countries). My guess, and it is purely a guess, is that it’s being kept secret because they don’t want a public backlash. And that’s a scary thing, that governments are conspiring to keep ordinary people out of it because people won’t like it.

Anyway, back to the leak. The US negotiators, with the RIAA/MPAA whispering in their ears no doubt, are pushing hard on various issues including making other countries adopt the severely flawed US DMCA. Other issues include ISP monitoring, three-strikes and all the nasty stuff “people” don’t like. But the push for US style DMCA has met with some resistance. New Zealand also questioned why Internet links can be considered copyright abuse, in that if you operate a website that has a link to another website that had pirated stuff on it, then you’re also liable for copyright infringement. On one hand, this is done to attack torrent websites like The Pirate Bay, which don’t actually link to pirated content, only to files that then link to the content. And there are also aggregator websites like isoHunt that then links to The Pirate Bay and other torrent websites. So it’s understandable why the copyright holders, which are the real powers behind the talks, want to make even linking illegal. But the problem is that this also puts search engines like Google into the same category as sites like isoHunt, since it’s quite easy to find torrents on Google (not quite as easy as say on isoHunt, but certainly not impossible). But it’s unlikely that Google will be sued because of this, but isoHunt will/has. And then there’s user submitted links, and whether for example if someone posts a comment for a blog post that contained a link to pirated content, then whether it’s the blog or the comment poster that is liable. The flow of responsibility has to stop somewhere. If site A is hosting illegal contents, then site A should be responsible, and not site B that links to site A. Because if site B is liable, then what about site C that links to site B, and site D that links to site C and so on. I think it just shows that most legislators don’t really understand how the Internet really works, and they are being easily convinced of this and that by powerful lobby groups, who themselves don’t fully understand the Internet and in general, the digital revolution. And so we, the people, have to suffer for it.

Most of the resistance seems to coming from Europe, and in the UK, the House of Lords are offering some resistance to the government’s proposed changes to digital copyright laws, but their alternative solution leaves much to be desired as well. The Lords are largely objecting to a clause which will allow ministers to bypass the parliament and implement new copyright laws as they see fit. Without public consultation, without a vote, straight from Hollywood’s lips to legislation. The government says that this is necessary because of the fast moving nature of the Internet, but no matter how you spin it, it just doesn’t have a place in a democratic government. The Lords’ proposed compromise is to allow the banning of entire websites on allegation of piracy, which is not going down well with consumer and Internet groups. More evidence of legislators not really understanding the full consequences of their actions in relation to the new digital world. The harm they can do to the digital economy is one thing, but it’s also the potential that they’re not seeing and we’re all missing out on. There are many things that would open up so many opportunities, but fear means that instead of trying to embrace change, they’re doing everything they can to avoid it.

Also in the UK, the group that regulates lawyers in the UK are taking action to stop law firms from flaunting copyright law to make a quick buck by sending infringement notices and demanding settlement fees to private individuals, whose IP address had been identified as one that participated in the download of something illegal. I’ve previously reported on the activities of law firms such as Davenport Lyons and recently, ACS:Law, that prey on those who do not want legal action and so pay up promptly, even in cases when they were sure they didn’t download anything illegal. Especially if the claimed download is pornography. Apparently, the letters sent out say that failing to secure one’s own Internet connection still makes one liable (that is, if your Wi-Fi was hacked and somebody used it to download pirated porn, then it’s still your fault), which is not true, and this could get them in big trouble with the regulators. Right now, it’s only two Davenport Lyons partners that’s been investigated, but DL has already withdrawn from these types of activities, and so ACS:Law will be next. DL pulled out rightly it seems, albeit probably too late to avoid issues with the regulator, and any law firm that participates in these type of activities is best described as a law firm for ambulance chasers, in my opinion.


This is probably the last time I will get to re-use this RealDVD screenshot

One of the things that I think is a missed opportunity is with the digitizing of movie collections, for which a legal solution simply does not exist, other than to repurchase your entire movie collection, often in a inferior digital only format. Hollywood’s determination to kill off anything that allows this to occur has been well documented. This week, they’ve managed to kill off RealNetworks’ RealDVD, which promised to allow people to convert their legally purchased DVDs to a fully digital, disc-less, format (with additional DRM to prevent online sharing). RealNetworks settled the case, admitting defeat and paying costs and will refund all purchasers of RealDVD. That’s a real shame. Not so much that RealDVD is dead, because it never really amounted to much, and the additional layers of DRM tied the digital “rips” to RealDVD’s software, which because it takes one relatively open format like DVD/MPEG-2, and turn it into a proprietary format that Real controls, means that it’s practically useless. However, it is the idea that Hollywood studios won’t allow DVDs to be copied in any way, that makes me angry, because there are a lot of legitimate reasons why someone would want to do it. Being digital, movies are easy to store and easy to transport. They’re also easier to catalogue, and when coupled with one of numerous media hub solutions out there, it makes finding and watching movies so much easier. The same reason why people now prefer MP3s to CDs, if you will.  Hollywood’s perceived danger here is that if such a system is not implemented well, it will allow “rent and rip” piracy (renting DVDs, ripping them, and returning the discs), or it will somehow make it easier to pirated movies online (which is hard to achieve, considering how easy it *already* is). These may be real problems, but that’s for Hollywood and their technical people to solve. You can’t deny your customers a much wanted and needed feature just because a minority of them might take advantage of holes in your system to do something they can already do so easily today. Keep on denying people, and people will find a way, regardless of whether it technically breaks the law or not. Hollywood might now turn a blind eye to these kind of “for personal use” ripping, but I think this is even more dangerous than implementing a “managed copy” system, because you’re effectively encouraging people to do something illegal (as stated in the copyright message that pops up before DVDs play, and also due to the US DMCA legislation) by not legally pursuing them (impossible, due to the number of people that are doing it) nor offering a legal alternative. The opportunity of having a fully digital movie library that can be created from your legally purchased discs is enormous, and it is technically much easier to achieve now thanks to development in hardware and storage technologies.

But I still think that we will have a system like this eventually. Which then makes the RealDVD decision even more ridiculous, and anti-competitive if the very people trying to kill RealDVD on copyright abuse grounds produces their own version of RealDVD in the future.

In more legal news, Viacom’s much publicized lawsuit against Google/YouTube reached a milestone this week, as both sides filed their summary judgement petitions. Viacom’s chances in the case is much diminished due to recent developments in recent cases, namely the Universal music versus Veoh case. And with Google now offering lots of opportunities for content owners like Viacom to make money off YouTube videos, even those uploaded without authorization, and the ability to remove videos, there’s not much logic in siding with Viacom on this one. And don’t forget about the free publicity that YouTube gives to new content, which is very much essential to companies like Viacom.

And in the most distasteful claim of the week section, we have the RIAA claiming that file sharers are undermining the Haiti relief effort. I don’t want to even want to go in to how the RIAA came up with this conclusion, but even if they’re right, it’s just really really really (really) bad taste, isn’t it? Using a disaster where so many died to promote their pro copyright agenda is just so wrong, but then again, it’s exactly the sort of thing you expect from the RIAA and MPAA. Techdirt’s analysis showed that hardly anyone was downloading the torrent of the Haiti relief album. And for those that downloaded, who knows if they donated to the Haiti relief effort or not. Maybe they donated a lot of money and then downloaded the album illegally, and maybe some of the people who paid for the album’s only contribution was the actual purchase of the album. And maybe the people who downloaded the album just didn’t have any money to donate, and who is to say that Haitian themselves aren’t downloading the album that’s been produced to help their flight (much of the Internet infrastructure survived the earthquake, for which the design of the Internet helped, as it was originally invented to tackle the problem of communication after nuclear war), and surely it doesn’t make sense to make them pay for it as well?

High Definition

Onto Blu-ray and HD news. The Lord of the Rings is coming to Blu-ray in April, and it is one of the most eagerly awaited titles on the format. But I won’t be buying it and I know a lot of other Blu-ray collectors that won’t be either. And judging by ratings on Amazon.com, 2045 one star votes versus 149 five star ones, most people seems to be thinking of doing the same.

Lord of the Rings Trilogy Theatrical Cut Blu-ray

LOTR finally coming to Blu-ray, but it's not all good news

The reason is that the April version will be the theatrical version of the movies only, not the extended version. Instead of releasing one version that contained all the cuts (or at least release both cuts at the same time), there will instead be another Blu-ray release probably later in the year that houses the extended version along with more extra features. This “double dipping” is a well known way to get people to pay twice (or more) for the same movie, each time promising just a little more stuff that you must see and artificially putting breaks between the release dates of the various versions to get more sales. Well at least this time they didn’t release each movie individually, and then release a trilogy box set with more stuff a few month later. But with so many LOTR fans having both versions of the films on DVD, perhaps this is one time the studios will find it difficult to force a sale, as I’m perfectly happy to watch the theatrical version on upscaled DVD if I have to (and I’ve never watched it again ever since getting the extended cut, which I’ve watched about 4 times already, for each movie). Although with that said, I can see fans not wanting to wait and buying the April version anyway, which is exactly what the studio wants and they can make this happen by not releasing any details of the extended Blu-ray version until they’ve had enough sales from the theatrical version. Don’t fall for their tricks (say the guy that has 6 versions of Terminator 2 on DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray)!

Netflix coming to the iPhone? If true, then expect the iPad to have it as well. Which means that by my calculation, 87.47% of all media devices sold today will be Netflix enabled, which is awesome news for Netflix and for digital video distribution, which was always thought to be entirely dependent on a large scale deployment of set top boxes.


And finally in gaming, there was the infamous PS3 leap year date bug earlier in the week that managed to cripple a huge percentage of PS3s. Apparently, a date logic error in most of the “fat” PS3 hardware meant that the consoles were wondering just what the hell had happened to February 29 2010, and then decided to fail to connect to the PlayStation Network.

This is fine, except many new games require a connection to the PSN even if you don’t play online, due to the need to sync trophy data, and so people were left with a PS3 that could only function as a media hub and a Blu-ray player. This was fine for me because I only use my PS3 as a media hub and Blu-ray player, and I had several good gaming sessions on my Xbox 360 while this whole thing was going down and it seemed like the official PS3 board was going to explode with all the complaining.

In the end, it was fixed relatively quickly. The date bug still exists on the PS3, but Sony somehow managed to fix the problem on their end.

All’s well that ends well? Not quite. And this again highlights a weakness of the increasingly net dependent nature of electronics, not just PS3s, and just how useful certain devices become when the Internet (or the connecting server) goes down. Full offline mode should be a prerequisite for any device I think, as well as lessons on just when leap years occur for their programmers.

And we come to the end of another WNR. Hope you’ve enjoyed this edition, and see you next week.


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