Disney’s cloud-based video subscription shenanigans

Is it just me, or is the whole point of buying seasonal videos (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Yule, etc) to watch them during that season?

In a recent story on TorrentFreak (originally reported on BoingBoing) which I unfortunately missed during the holiday season, it was reported that Disney temporarily pulled several Christmas-themed videos from the Amazon Instant Video service during the holiday season. The reason? So the videos would be exclusively available on Disney’s cable TV channels.

From the article, quoting a customer only identified as Bill:

“Amazon has explained to me that Disney can pull their content at any time and ‘at this time they’ve pulled that show for exclusivity on their own channel.’ In other words, Amazon sold me a Christmas special my kids can’t watch during the run up to Christmas,” Bill notes.

“It’ll be available in July though!” he adds.

I think Disney has hit a new low here and has unintentionally brought a whole new meaning to the term “Mickey Mouse operation.” It defies pretty much any type of logic to sell a video intended for viewing during the holiday season, and then make it unavailable during said holiday season. In essence, it’s “thank you for your money, now subscribe to the Disney Channel which will require even more money.”

Disney needs to apologize profusely for this, if they have not already done so. Should Disney fail to do so, I can count at least one Star Wars fan who will not give Disney one red cent to watch the new Star Wars films. (I do plan to watch them; it’s a question of whether or not Disney gets any money from me when I do. How I watch some movies without paying for them is left as an exercise to the reader.)

Amazon has disappointed me as well. I would rather have seen Amazon not budge and tell Disney where to stick their “we can revoke access at any time” clause in the contract. Maybe that means that Disney’s holiday-themed videos wouldn’t be available anywhere (I am assuming Netflix didn’t have them). And maybe that’s a good thing, as it is paramount to giving Disney the figurative shotgun and shells to figuratively blast themselves in the foot.

Moral of the story: if you want to be sure it’s there when you’re ready to watch, don’t trust the cloud. Get a physical disc or DRM-free download.

Save the date: A Day Against DRM, 2010 May 04

DefectiveByDesign.org recently published an article entitled “The decade of DRM.” Included among the events were four events prior to 2000 that would set the stage for the introduction and proliferation of DRM (digital restrictions management), arguably one of the biggest steps backward for computing freedom ever.

Even as far back as 2000, a lot of devices that we do not ordinarily think of as computers are in fact exactly that. Television sets, VCRs, CD players, DVD players, portable audio players, mobile phones, copiers, printers, scanners, fax machines, and the list goes on; all of these have computers (microprocessor-based logic) built into them somewhere. In 1980, this was unheard of, but now, it’s a fact of life. I still remember my late grandfather’s rants about these new cars with “all this computer [excrement]” that made them much more difficult to fix.

We have yet to change one thing, and it’s probably one thing that should not be changed. Computers are still, by themselves, incredibly dumb. One would think this, by itself, would discourage widespread adoption of DRM. Sadly, this is not the case.

The recording industry (RIAA) has realized DRM is not in their best interests. However movies, e-books, and cable television continue to be saddled with obnoxious restrictions. It’s often said that locks only keep honest people honest, and this is the same with DRM which is just a cyberspace equivalent of a fancy padlock. Those who do not respect copyright or draconian laws like the DMCA will crack the DRM and share anyway. CSS (not the stylesheet language, the DVD encryption method) was cracked very on in the lifespan of the DVD format. The Blu-Ray AACS key has been changed several times, and it just gets cracked again and again. Copies of these movies, as well as scans of books in PDF form, are easily obtainable on peer-to-peer file sharing networks and sites.

Meanwhile, people who have legitimately paid for video and audio recordings get unwelcome surprises when license servers disappear and they try to play recordings they “own” on a new computer. (The term “own” and “ownership” is kind of pointless with DRM, as even if one still has a copy of the recording, it can be rendered useless on an arbitrary basis. It’s like having a CD, DVD, or book that can just vanish or turn to dust without warning.) Don’t believe me? Ask these baseball fans who got bitten by MLB’s change in DRM licensing servers. Or the many people who bought into Microsoft’s PlaysForSure DRM scheme.

Perhaps the worst example, however, is when Amazon reached in to thousands of Kindle e-book readers it sold and erased copies of George Orwell’s book 1984, back in 2009 July. The content of the book itself makes the message even more chilling than it would otherwise have been.

DRM is an anti-social technology and I feel it is out of place in a world where “social media” is the new buzzword. The sooner it dies, the better.

“Library of future” initiative becomes corporate battleground

Wired reports on Sony’s decision to side with Google in a highly contentious lawsuit between Google and rivals Microsoft, Yahoo, and Amazon.

The lawsuit centers around privacy concerns and the fact it would give Google monopoly-like status on book rights that would be impossible for other companies to acquire without their own lawsuit.

Worse for Google, the Department of Justice is also investigating the settlement–a rather ominous and foreboding development.

I have never been all that positiviely impressed with Sony; they are probably the only company with a hand in consumer electronics and entertainment (the latter through their acquisition of Columbia Tri-Star in 1989 and CBS Records in 1987). The second DVD player my mom ever bought was a Sony, and it was the first to fail; the RCA player purchased a few months before still works today as far as I know. It has always seemed to me that Sony built up a good reputation in its early days, and somehow managed to keep it afloat enough to justify some kind of premium pricing even though the reputation it has is probably less deserved today.

Still, today, I’d really like to give Sony the benefit of the doubt. Yes, even though this is the same Sony known for the doomed Betamax and Digital 8 videotape formats, and the XCP and MediaMax copy protection scandal of 2005.

I don’t know much of the details and motivation behind why Sony would back Google. I do know that it’s Very Bad to let any one company grow to an effective monopoly; there is a reason we have the Sherman Anti-Trust act in the US and why similar legislation and oversight exists in the EU and elsewhere. And this does smell like something Sony would do not out of concern for its customers, but for its own corporate interests. I also believe we, as a society, should not reward a company that puts shareholders above customers when filing amicus briefs in these legal chess games.

Maybe my instinct is off the mark yet again, but it is what it is.

Yet another Kindle DRM oddity

A recent Gizmodo article reports on Kindle users being left in the dark with regard to knowing how many times they can download a purchased book, and on how many different devices they can read said book.

The limits vary by publisher, but obviously Amazon has to maintain them on the servers responsible for the digital restrictions management (DRM). Yet, somehow, it’s beneath Amazon to actually tell the users. This excerpt detailing a tech support call to Amazon says it all:

“How I find out (sic) how many times I can download any given book?” I asked. He replied, “I don’t think you can. That’s entirely up to the publisher and I don’t think we always know.”

I pressed – “You mean when you go to buy the book it doesn’t say `this book can be downloaded this number of times’ even though that limitation is there?” To which he replied, “No, I’m very sorry it doesn’t.”

Jack Loftus, who wrote the article for Gizmodo, opines:

With certain books, you could be limited in such a way that your reading material does not follow your gadget’s natural upgrade cycle.

Such is the pitfall of DRM. My take? It’s time to give DRM the burial it deserves. Everywhere.

Microsoft, remote Xbox 360 bricking, trust, and individuality

While slightly old, I only recently stumbled across a Technologizer article that claims Microsoft can remotely disable (“brick”) an Xbox 360 console.

The chilling effect here should be obvious. And I have two points to note about this.

One, I am really glad I don’t do proprietary game consoles anymore. I miss them less as time goes on.

Two, it has long been my viewpoint that any time a company releases a gadget like this, not designed to run a free software operating system (in this case, quite obviously designed never to run anything not bearing Microsoft’s digital signature equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval), it would greatly behoove one to treat the transaction as a rental, not a purchase. That is, when one buys an Xbox 360, one is renting that device from Microsoft for its useful life, for a flat rate, and one considers the device as actually being owned by Microsoft during this time. (Think of the “return” as being made to a recycling center. Even though one technically can sell the Xbox, it would still be wise to treat this more as the transferring of a rental contract than an actual sale, similar to what happens when one gets tired of the iPhone after a season’s worth of lousy service from AT&T and is no longer interested in paying the balance of the two-year contract.)

The Xbox is just an example here. It’s not just the Xbox, or just Microsoft; Apple’s iPhone and iPod would also qualify here, making the appropriate substitutions. As mentioned previously, I would also treat the Amazon Kindle in this fashion. There is unfortunately no neat place to draw a “line in the sand” here; some manufacturers are actually reasonable and do not resort to fascist tactics such as remotely disabling hardware on a whim.

The important thing to take away from all this: using a manufacturer’s hardware, especially when sold as a closed system, is trusting that manufacturer. When you use your Windows PC, play games on your Xbox 360, or use your Zune for playing music or video, you are trusting Microsoft. When you use your iMac or MacBook, or use your iPod for playing your music or video, you are trusting Apple. When you use your Kindle for reading e-books, you are trusting Amazon. The use of these devices and proprietary software are the transactions that define entrusting the companies behind them. There is no way around it. Not surprisingly, you find very few bloggers like myself willing to take the gloves off and expose misdeeds of companies like Microsoft and Apple.

I recently observed someone carrying an iPhone in her dress/shirt pocket, clearly displaying the Apple logo to the world, as if to show it off. (I don’t think she’s one of my readers, but she might be.) Now, I don’t always call people out for things like this in person. But here, where I don’t need to worry about making a scene, I feel I can safely say that I’m not sure what kind of fashion statement that’s supposed to make. Maybe it’s “I’m a sheep,” “I’m a lemming”, or “I have no individuality.” Or maybe even “I think the Apple logo looks so cool I’ll give them free advertising.” Perhaps, it’s “I still like Apple even though they sold Baby Shaker for a few days and censored the EFF application for no good reason.”

I don’t know. Maybe someone out there can explain it. That’s why I have a comment section. (And I’m not even requiring commenters to sign up for an Intense Debate account first.)