May 23, 2007
There was some Slashdot buzz earlier this week about Microsoft Windows Media Center users suddenly facing restrictions forbidding playback of recorded analog cable TV content. Was DRM smuggled along with an “update” into unsuspecting users’ machines?
In fact, Windows Media Center has always obeyed CGMS-A, a DRM system that TV stations can use. Pay-per-view, VOD, and premium channels like HBO can (and do) mark programming as “Copy Once” or “Copy Never.” Tech creators are free to build DVRs and other devices that ignore CGMS-A signals and create restriction-free recordings, but Microsoft opted to kowtow to content providers and infect Media Centers with the DRM anyway. (You may recall that TiVo decided to cripple its DVRs so that they recognize a similar DRM flag developed by Macrovision.)
As if the deliberate use restrictions weren’t bad enough, obeying CGMS-A has also caused technical errors and haphazard incompatibilities. Remember Windows’ “blue screen of death,” signaling an unexpected failure? DRM creates more ways for your system to fail — your Media Center may work reliably today, but a software or hardware change could create unpredictable limitations.
According to PC World, this sort of technical problem probably led to the complaints featured on Slashdot. You can bet that this won’t be the last time customers bump up against such problems both with CGMS-A and other DRM.
It’s worth noting that the DRM can get even worse when it comes to digital cable. Media Center users can look forward to even more limits on streaming throughout their house, copying to portable devices, and other legitimate uses.
Just because Microsoft decided to obey CGMS-A doesn’t mean you have to. You can look to PC DVR alternatives, and you can make DRM-free, analog-to-digital conversions of TV content using tools like the Neuros recorder that don’t recognize CGMS-A.