Digital Distribution Claims More Victims — I’m Here To Help

As the reining champion of Physical Media — I must comment because attention must be paid.

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This month, Microsoft will shut down a digital rights management (DRM) server that authorizes the use of ebooks users have “purchased” over the last several years.

These aren’t ebooks that were distributed for free. These aren’t “virtual library books” these users borrowed with the understanding that in 14 days, they would disappear and be “checked back in”.

When these users committed to the “purchase” of these books, they clicked a button that said “Buy Now”. It didn’t say “Rent Now” or “Borrow Now”. After all, with apologies to Jud Crandall

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But it really isn’t, is it?

When you “buy” from digital lockers, your ownership is not guaranteed. Ask the poor folks who lost their music from Wal-Mart in 2008.

Perhaps the good people relying on iTunes who purchased HD movies and unceremoniously lost them without elaborate work arounds — or the customers that paid for 4K movies only to find one day that they had all been demoted to “HD” versions.

These aren’t mom and pop digital shops customers are buying from. Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Apple, Google … They all protect content with DRM which is designed to protect against piracy.

Unfortunately, it also protects against ownership.

Oh it isn’t just ebooks and music that can be dusted off and nuked from orbit. Those “digital lockers” like Steam, Origin, Uplay are all also susceptible to removal of content.

Understanding the Problem

Content owners (that produce media like television, film, music and books) demand protection against piracy. If they let you download MP4 files or MP3 files, those are bereft of protection from a casual user simply throwing those files on a flash drive and giving them to their buddy. Or posting those files online.

In the past, content used “copy protection” to ensure that file was only usable by the original purchaser. this copy protection obviously had to work without being connected to the internet. This “local” copy protection was okay because you could still consume the content no matter if you were online, offline or in many cases regardless of the device you chose to use.

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Code Wheels were used as early methods of copy protection — No wheel? No play.

It was almost like owning a CD or Blu ray. It was protected — but you still were able to more-or-less own it (you had some rights and privileges) because once you had it — no one could “take it back”.

Once everyone was connected to the internet, a copy protection system was put into place called “server side checks”. Upon running the game or accessing the content — a ping went out from your device to the internet and your “right to use” was validated against a database on the other end. Things were kept a bit loose; if that ping couldn’t happen (you were offline) the content would continue to play — at least for a period of time — until the next required ping to the server. This is a lot like how the gaming digital locker Steam works today.

Moving forward — we pretty much are required to always be online to consume our content. Sure, sure — there are “offline modes”, where you can bring a movie or TV show down to your phone for the flight — but that file is heavily encrypted to your device and has an expiration date that ensures you can’t use it forever.

Even if you hit “Buy It Now”.

Physical Media Is A Solution

When you purchase a DVD or Blu ray, the disc contains copy protection. But, that copy protection never requires an online component to run.

Unless Something Bad(tm) happens to that disc — you will have access to that content forever. Despite laws telling you that you can’t, there are tools that allow you to create copies of that content and let you move it to other devices. After all, will the FBI come after you for making a copy of your Blu ray to pop on your kid’s tablet for the road trip to see Grandma? Probably not.

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Tools like DVDFab can help you convert your physical media into unprotected files for personal use.

Now if you put it on your Dropbox and post a link on Reddit? Yes, you’re probably going to get into some trouble.

When you “buy” a movie or book from Amazon, they can remove your rights to that content at any time (and if you read the EULA closely — probably without even notifying you) despite the fact you paid the same price as if you bought the physical media version of the product. It is easy for them to do this — because that content is tied to an online database they control. The flip of a switch and your content is no longer available and they can remove that right from millions of people in a split second.

If you want to know more about my feelings on Physical Media? Just read this.

Piracy Is Another Solution

Oddly enough, the very thing that DRM was designed to stop is precisely what people turn to in order to get content the way they want; where they want.

After all, if you get on Usenet or Torrent sites and get a copy of Shazam! in MP4 or MKV format — that file can be played on any device, any time and you don’t have to be connected to the internet, wifi at the hotel — you can even watch it on the plane using whatever movie player you want. You can even choose the quality that matches the size you want.

Sounds pretty attractive, right?

Sure it does. Meanwhile, if you want to watch that movie “purchased” off Amazon or Google Play? Better hope offline is an option — and you’re limited to using their app, their way. Don’t forget to be on wifi at the designated time to make sure it syncs down before your flight.

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It doesn’t always work. Some stuff you just can’t watch offline.

DRM is there to control your experience and protect the copyright holder. It provides ZERO service to the end user. In fact, it does just the opposite.

My solution to piracy and giving people what they want? The Right to Use license.

Plex — Own And Stream On Your Terms

I know, you love the convenience (is it?) of streaming. But ownership sounds pretty damn good too. Cord cutters often find out the hard way that streaming isn’t all it is cracked up to be.

A lot of Blu rays come with a digital code — to help you get the best of both worlds. You own the movie on disc but you can also watch it anywhere with a streaming app. Sounds great.

Most content doesn’t have that, though.

Using some tools and your own collection of physical media, you can set up your own streaming service using something great called Plex Media Server.

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Host your own content. Stream it yourself. You are in control.

Rip your own content (you’ll need some tools), throw it on your own computer at home, stream it anywhere you want on any device you want — you’re in full control of the experience all the way through.

Maybe “pseudo ownership” doesn’t bother you. Maybe you only watch movies once anyway. Maybe once you read that ebook, you’re fine not being able to loan it to friend or donate it to a book drive. Maybe you’re okay with content owners jerking your favorite TV shows to and from services like Disney+ or CBS All Access.

Me? I’m not. I’ll bury my DVDs, Blu rays, CDs and everything else into a Micmac Indian Burial Ground if necessary to protect my content from the terrible effects of digital distribution.

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I write, blog, record and review anything that interests me — including humanity, parenting, gizmos & gadgets, video games and media.

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