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Vista's restrictions highlight digital rights debate

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The debate and confusion over Puretracks' new MP3 music library and whether it's free of anti-copying locks that prevent people from putting their tunes on any device - computer, iPod or even cellphone, for example - has shone a spotlight on the best way to give people access to their content.

The attention revisits questions raised after Microsoft Corp. launched the latest version of its flagship Windows operating system on Jan. 30, which is in turn fuelling discussion about the ownership and use of digital media.

DRM or digital rights management is a catch-all term for a broad range of technologies used by copyright owners to control how a piece of data, software or hardware can be used by others. The measure is commonly used to restrict the ability to copy or transfer music or movie files such as those bought from sites like Apple Inc.'s iTunes Store or burned from a computer to a CD or DVD.

Digital rights advocates and observers of content sectors such as the music and movie industries have condemned what they feel is a restrictive DRM regime that takes control of content away from consumers and treats them as though they are thieves or potential criminals.

On the other side of the equation, Microsoft says it has no hand in setting content controls and must comply with industry standards for DRM and security. Some observers agree with that claim, blaming copyright-focused content industries that they say refuse to recognize technology has given people choices they never had in the past.

Microsoft defends content protections

Vista's approach to managing hardware and the sum of rights Microsoft grants the operating system's users lie at the heart of much of the debate swirling around the software.

For example, Windows Vista complies with a proprietary DRM technology known as the high-bandwidth definition content protection (HDCP) standard developed by Intel Corp. If a person decides to use their computer to play a high-definition DVD that employs the technology and it detects the system doesn't use HDCP-protected video or audio connections, the audio and video quality is automatically downgraded.

"That's an advantage," Elliot Katz, a product manager with Microsoft Canada told CBC News Online. "In Windows XP, it wouldn't have played."

Katz stressed that Microsoft doesn't specify the HDCP or other DRM standards and suggested if the same disc were put into a non-compliant DVD player, it wouldn't play at all.

Michael Burke, the program manager on the Windows Vista team at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash., describing Vista's technologies as an evolution in the way that music and video are handled.

"The content protection mechanisms that are in Windows Vista are really, really new," Burke told CBC News Online.

"It's something we need to do to be compliant with requirements content makers and owners have. It's part of being a good partner and it lets people take advantage of high definition content."

Burke argued that without such restrictions, content makers would have little incentive to make or let people play music, movies or other materials on their computers.

"With no content protection in place, it's not a win-win situation for anyone. We've struck a good compromise."

Restrictions cause harm, critics say

Some others don't see it that way.

"Anything that restricts people's ability to view the stuff that they've purchased legally is a bad thing," said Sam Punnett, the president of FAD Research Inc., a Toronto-based interactive media and market research firm.

Punnett has produced studies of technology's impact on Canada's content industries for the federal government.

He argues that locking down music, movies and other media with technological and legal fetters like Vista ultimately drives consumers away and harms the industry.

"It directs people to find ways to avoid it, avoid the hassle," he said.

Cory Doctorow

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