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A DRM Lesson for Spielberg

The Guardian has a front-page story, “Spielberg loses out at the push of a button,” about problems British critics are having when they try to view a limited-edition DVD of his new movie, Munich, for an awards contest:

Developed by Cinea, a subsidiary of Dolby, the players permit their owners to view encrypted DVD “screeners”, but prevent the creation of pirate copies. Munich screeners were encoded for region one, which allows them to be played in the US and Canada, rather than region two, which incorporates most of Europe.

The faulty DVDs only reached Bafta members on Saturday, which meant the film had already missed out on the first round of voting on January 4. In a further twist to the tale, a previous batch mailed out before Christmas were reportedly held up by customs officials in the UK. “It’s been quite a cock-up,” said one Bafta member, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

What’s faulty, of course, is the region coding itself. It’s a longstanding method of market-fixing that the movie industry uses to keep prices higher in some areas than others.

The DVD cartel — and “cartel” is a precise word here — have agreed to split up the world into regions. Getting a license to sell DVD players means agreeing to put region coding in them. The DVDs themselves are typically set to one region, and are unplayable elsewhere.

At a conference a few years ago I asked someone from film industry to explain why region coding exists. He said movie prints are expensive, and therefore films are launched around the world at different times in different regions. This means, he said, that it would undermine the box office for films if the DVD from other regions was available when the actual theater release was happening elsewhere.

Okay, I said. Then why are old movies region coded? After all, I noted, they’ve long since seen their days in theaters.

The industry guy, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, hemmed and hawed and essentially offered no justification. Not that there was one. This is rigging markets, nothing less or more.

I’m a big fan of Spielberg’s movies, but I have to say I’m glad to see that this fiasco could cost him.

This topic matters because it’s an example of the entertainment industry’s overall insistence on control of digital content. This wouldn’t matter, except that new art is always derived from old art. Artists and other creators build on the work of others.

Digital “rights” management (substitute “restrictions” for “rights” and you’ve a more accurate picture) makes that difficult or impossible. It steals from creativity and innovation. Today, the movie people prevent you from quoting from their material by using such tricks. Yet quotation is at the heart of creation when it comes to art, journalism, history, scholarship and so much more.

At the moment, however, they can’t tell you what to do with the videos you create. Tomorrow, the way things are going, they’ll try to do just that.

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