Good things about Microsoft: they’re the rich kid next door who can book Jefferson Starship for their Vista launch tour. Good news for PC users: DRM probably isn’t going to keep you from getting a shiny new OS after all.

Whether you choose Mac OS X, Linux, Windows XP, or Windows Vista — or some combination as I do, and let’s not forget your hacked Commodore 64 — your OS choices should be based on fact. As you know, we’re not exactly big fans of over-aggressive Digital Rights Management and content protection. But readers here have found ways of using their tech the way they want: importing unrestricted, legal music from CDs into iTunes, loading MP3s and OGG files onto portable players, and so on. And there are DRM restrictions we can live with; I haven’t ever had trouble with DVDs, for instance. DRM only becomes a problem if it gives you no choice, or interferes with your work.

The problem is, some pundits have been so anxious to blast Windows Vista that they’ve started to spread information that is inaccurate or exaggerated. I was suspicious of the “Sky-is-Falling” gloom-and-doom accusations of content protection in Vista. Sure enough, those of you with actual technical experience wrote in to confirm that at least some of this information was overblown. Readers using Vista haven’t had reliability and usability problems in Vista in general. DRM restrictions are optional; they apply only when you buy hardware built to play the content and only while you’re playing the protected content (like a Blu-Ray disc). And driver signing requirements, while they initially made us a little nervous, aren’t a major hurdle: you can turn off signing requirements to install unsigned drivers when you need to, developing signed drivers should be practical for most developers, and signing requirements may stop misbehaved drivers from trashing your PC system.

Incidentally, take a look at comments; this site attracts a lot of people whose day job is developing drivers and applications for Windows. A lot of you know what you’re talking about.

Microsoft’s program managers have also responded to the content protection concerns:

Windows Vista Content Protection – Twenty Questions (and Answers)

The most troubling content protection to me is the HDCP DRM, intended for consumer HD content like Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. Quite frankly, I think a lot of the restrictions it introduces are horrific; they’re bad for consumers, and they’re bad for manufacturers and content producers because confused and frustrated consumers are less likely to buy their gear. But the question here isn’t whether HDCP is a good idea — it’s whether the presence of HDCP in Vista is something that’s a problem, or something you can ignore. (Keep in mind, Mac OS X may not be immune to content protection in the future. Apple’s basically been mum on that point.)

Based on Microsoft’s response and other information we’ve received, the situation appears to be this:

  1. Content protection only comes into play when you’re playing protected content. These restrictions don’t apply to your whole machine, period. Unless you’re trying to mix the audio output from a Blu-Ray disc into your set in SONAR, it doesn’t matter.
  2. Open source developers will still be able to write drivers. (I’ve heard as much from some in the development community.)
  3. Content restrictions do not impact pro audio. You may have heard about restrictions on S/PDIF digital output. Unless you record your set to a protected file and add the DRM yourself, this will NOT impact work you’re doing in pro audio apps.
  4. Don’t worry about tilt bit. Microsoft believes the hypothetical tilt bit problems posed by some pundits are unlikely. Do you believe Microsoft? Again, it really doesn’t matter, as long as you’re not playing HD-DVD / Blu-Ray on your machine; the restrictions don’t apply at any other time.
  5. Games, music apps, pro audio, and everything else on your system is safe, because the restrictions apply only to content that has already been restricted.

Getting the picture? Pro audio and music creation aren’t going to suffer from the content protection features, because none of those applications support the optional restrictions in the first place.

Now, that said, I don’t think these concerns came out of thin air. I did hear (unconfirmed) reports that earlier in Vista development, Microsoft did want DRM support in pro music applications. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see the reaction from audio developers. I expect it was not “Yeah, that’s a great idea! Let me set to work on it immediately!” Regardless, it didn’t happen. It’s not in Vista. And Microsoft is such a big company, that it’s hard to even know where in the company that idea came from in the first place — assuming these reports are even correct.

I do think the content protection issues are ones we should watch closely, particularly after the Sony RootKit debacle. And we should watch closely on Mac OS X, too. But the current situation for Vista means that the pro audio and music end of the equation is really not impacted.

So, you should run out and switch to Vista the minute it comes out, because it’s the phattest operating system on the planet!

No, of course not. Vista will require or at least benefit from updates to many drivers and applications, so as with any OS update (including those fantastic point releases from Apple that can be automatically installed), you may want to wait to verify compatibility with your stuff. What this means is that other issues, not content protection, are likely to impact your decision. You should consider whether Vista offers significant benefits for the cost on your machine and setup. You should research compatibility. You should make sure that when you do decide to upgrade, you leave enough time to do a full backup and take the time needed to install and tweak the OS. (Why do I point out the obvious? Because I’m the idiot who has broken ALL those rules at one time or another in the past decade and a half on various platforms.)

And, of course, you’ll want to keep reading CDM, because I am the bleeding-edge nut who will try to make it work. You can watch me suffer and/or determine Vista is a good thing, after all. And you can be sure, once I have the finished release, I’ll be frank about the comparison to the experience on Mac OS X and even Linux.

What frustrates me is that distorted fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about any OS obscures technically-accurate, not-made-up issues. Linux and Mac OS X have some significant, real, not distorted advantages. And readers here are successfully producing music on all three platforms, usually for good (and often very personal) reasons.

  • Peter – re-read Dave Marsh's response. For many critical issues that Gutman raised, Marsh said "thats not true, except when X, Y and Z are true". sounds good, except that X, Y and Z will be true in more than just a few corner cases. For S/PDIF and HDMI, the answer seemed almost disingenuous: no, we don't shut down S/PDIF quality, well, not unless you try to play protected content at the same time. You summarized the story well, but you slipped and fell with "none of the apps support the optional restrictions in the first place". These restrictions are NOT optional. If they were, they would not be restrictions 🙂 Its precisely because the apps do not choose to participate in honoring the content "protection" that they will be denied certain rights by the OS.

    And Gutman makes a very solid point in his handling of Marsh's responses: this technology from MS is presumably intended to be *used*. Right now, there is almost no content available that will trigger the content protection mechanism, and so you're probably going to be safe. But what happens when more and more small content houses package up their stuff with a requirement that the OS restrict access to the data? The mechanism isn't restricted to stuff on certain kinds of media – it could be triggered by playing videos downloaded from a website that has content restrictions embedded within it.

    I hear a lot of people saying "well, I never play videos while i am mixing anyway". Cool. Thats great, and I'm happy that the people who say this have found a decent working style. But we're not talking about the *choice* of whether or not to play videos at the same time, we're talking about a fundamental property of the OS: can you get full quality audio out of the box while also playing "protected" video material?

    Its not hard to imagine the following scenario in which two opposing goals come head to head: a movie studio, wanting to prevent piracy of the new film, imposes severe restrictions on the cut sent to the post studio. the post guys complain that they can't play the content and get decent sound without running the stuff on two different machines, which causes all kinds of subtle headaches. Who wins out in this scenario? This is a niche case, for sure, but its indicative of the kind of rat hole this model of "content protection" is digging for all of us.

  • Well, wait a minute, when the heck does that scenario come up? Anyone doing music production and trying to play back protected content in a media player simultaneously is likely to suffer degraded performance on any system, with or without the new restrictions. The other night, I was watching my Blu-Ray of Pirates of the Caribbean while playing back some songs I bought on URGE and mixing a tune in SONAR on Vista? Really?

    Unless someone can find a scenario in which the DRM stuff interferes with actual work, then the issue is restricted to playback of protected content. That doesn't make these restrictions any less painful for those playback applications, and I'm happy to criticize the Windows OS and the content producers (and certainly will) for imposing this mandatory restrictions on playback.

    But the whole point is that Gutman's argument was inaccurate, because it completely obliterated all of the pre-conditions. It's even less unfair to suggest hardware and software manufacturers have to implement these features when, according to everything I've been able to find, they don't. Unless I missed something colossal, I don't think Cakewalk added DRM to SONAR or Steinberg to ASIO, because there's no need for production applications to have these features in the first place. (There's a similar divide in pro/consumer playback and recording hardware that's been around for years.)

    So, the verdict for consumers would indeed seem to be bad — that's a whole separate discussion, and one worth having. But the situation for content production and pro applications is essentially unchanged in any plausible, real-world situation. Conflating the two arguments doesn't help anyone.

    I can start a separate thread where we rant about the playback stuff; the only reason I didn't is I figured it had been well-covered elsewhere, whereas implications for production have been virtually ignored.

  • Also, in case people don't know what we're talking about, Gutman recently added a response to Microsoft on his original story.

    Now, I should qualify — I don't entirely understand the implications for video card development, which is more problematic here I think than audio; that's the reason I skipped over that. As implied in the headline, I'm talking about music production.

    But Gutman didn't respond to the fact that he had essentially implied the DRM would break your system and prevent the use of major pro applications. He answered only a tiny fraction of what Marsh had said, and even then, only with small, out-of-context examples.

    I don't think Microsoft has done a good job (understatement) of justifying or even explaining a lot of their decisions. But the concern of readers here was the implications for pro music and graphics creation applications, and right now, I don't see any real reason for concern for those people deciding to upgrade to Vista. I see some *extremely* serious implications for protected media playback, but that's a separate issue.

    The one area in which I could see some crossover, and Paul, this is where you might know better than me, is open source driver support. If "the internal workings of the graphics chip must be kept secret," according to Microsoft's own documentation, then I would imagine that could have serious implications for, say, open source driver development. (And there are even third party driver projects for Windows, so this isn't even limited to the Linux community.) It's just unclear to me exactly how much secrecy is required, and whether the affected components would interfere with driver development or if drivers could support the graphics card minus the DRM features. I just don't know; this seems awfully vague. But that's why I prefer to have my doses of advocacy separate from research, and Gutman and Microsoft *both* seem so eager to make a political case that it's hard to get solid information.

    Call me crazy, but I prefer solid information.

    Of course, I'll be at the Vista launch on Monday. I'm sure the tote bag and stale sandwiches or whatever they give me, combined with the infamous "Reality Distortion Field" of Bill Gates' powerful oratory style and the hip, glitzy graphics of Microsoft's PR division will completely destroy any journalist integrity I have left. (Heck, if I went to a open source Linux music/visual conference, we'd be buying each other rounds of beers, so I know who can best bias ME…)


  • kokorozashi

    I think it's reasonable to be concerned that it will be difficult to write drivers for open source operating systems which can play protected content on devices designed for Vista. However, I also think that's less crippling an issue for musicians than it is for consumers. If these devices support pro audio on Windows, then the relevant hardware details should be no more difficult to pry out of the manufacturers than it has been for the last few years. And frankly open source operating systems have much larger problems than DRM to solve when it comes to addressing consumers.

  • kokorazashi, I agree … this wasn't just open source OSes, but drivers in general (since there are open source driver projects on Windows, too). On audio, it seems like a non-issue — you're not going to have an open source project that supports this specific DRM, anyway — and that's the DRM's fault. It's the video drivers I'm unsure of, because it's not clear how interwined the DRM features are with the non-DRM capabilities of the graphics cards. So you might not be able to access details you need for *non-DRMed* functions, and that's a legitimate concern. On the other hand, even on Linux, I'm FAR more likely to use proprietary drivers for the graphics card, and NVIDIA's Linux drivers are quite good. The open source drivers might be a lot better if NVIDIA were open to support, which they're not, and not only for DRM reasons. But at the end of the day, I think there are much bigger battles to fight than this. The big question for everyone will be, does my stuff work? And for now, the answer is still yes.

    Back to global geopolitics, global warming, asteroids crushing the Earth — more important matters. 😉

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  • GeoApps

    Not all the complaining about Vista's increased DRM interfering with user's rights is myth.

    On a recent podcast at CNet's Buzz Out Loud, I think it was 1/26/07, Tom Merritt reported that he had installed Vista on an IBM ThinkPad T42 which had had XP SP2 installed. With XP he could play all his DVDs, but once Vista was installed there were at least some DVDs which would turn the screen black. Apparently Vista's content-protection doesn't like his older "unprotected" video adapter. So here's a situation where LEGAL DVDs which played fine under XP won't play under Vista.

  • I've also seen the DVD playback issue on my Vista test system. The issue is driver compatibility; Microsoft placed the DVD playback in the protected area. The *myth*, though, is that this will impact other work, like content production, and having been testing on a machine without the protected video path, I can definitely confirm that's a myth. The DVD will stop playing, but it won't break anything *else*, which is what early reports (apparently based on pure speculation, not actual tests) had claimed.

  • Ian

    It can be a big possibility if you are not able to play videos, and audios files under Vista, try upgrade the vids and auds codecs for Vista.., such as Divx and so on…

  • John Clark

    Mr Kirn: regarding DVD issues, I've already run into numerous issues under Vista. Recently when Re-tracking the audio to our bands most recent music-video DVD prior to issuing a final release for distribution, using Adobe Audition as the recording source, WMP refused to play the DVD whilst Audition was loaded. No real explanation was given, just a blank error box and a second one stating an error occurred in displaying the error. Ouch. I ASSUME this is a DRM issue, but the media was non-protected to begin with, and will be released without any protection, as we believe in fair market practice, which DRM of any kind violates.

    I'm not sure how much detail is required in this explanation, or to get a comprehensive response back, but the audio was audio was being recorded from the DVDs optical-audio out, to the X-Fi's optical -in port, all in the same system. The goal was to split the already encoded audio track from the DVD source to attach it to the identical video pack in an MPEG4 container prior to creating an HDDVD to also be released. If I'm missing something, then I apologise, but this appears to be a real-world scenario for DRM issues under vista that are not specifically content-related. And I'm no engineer so If this is off a bit in terms, again, sorry.

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  • Hi,

    I've recently bought a new laptop with Vista and I've run into a DRM problem. I would be grateful if anybody could solve it for me.

    I've copied all my files over from my old laptop, and everything is find except video files I filmed myself on my samsung nv3 camera – WMP tells me that the files are "missing media usage rights". How do I get these for content I made myself? Would installing the software and drivers that came with the camera help? I haven't done this yet because I usually just plug my camera in by USB and copy files off of it like normal.

    Any help appreciated: either post here, or email me at ijs24 [at] cam [dot-] ac [dot] uk.

    Thank you

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