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Microsoft Draws Battle Lines On Content Protection

In the end it wasn't Fritz Hollings, Jack Valenti or the FCC that took the first step into the explosive minefield of content protection. It was - to the surprise of many - Bill Gates, not a typical "content provider" but one of the pioneers of the media pirates' key tools, the personal computer.

Here was Gates, smiling on the stage of the Kodak Theater, the new home of the Academy Awards, paying homage to the powers-that-be in Hollywood. Even to some of Microsoft's biggest admirers, it was a shocking sellout of millions of personal computer users around the globe.

Gates accomplished voluntarily what Hollywood-friendly politicians and lobbyists could only dream of - he created a new computer design that essentially cripples the consumers' free use and manipulation of legally acquired media.


Microsoft's initiative goes far beyond blocking content pirates from making digital copies of movies. It imposes a set of restrictions so severe that viewers will find they can be prohibited from choosing to watch certain video programs in their bedroom rather than the den.

The new Windows Media Platform doesn't wait for the courts to sort out consumers' long-enjoyed freedom of media "fair use." Instead, it employs aggressive new encryption technology to create a fortress of computing roadblocks that redefine the permitted uses of movies, television programs and music in the home.

Microsoft is offering Hollywood what it has sought for so long - a coin-operated digital media machine that's based on arbitrary rules determined by the content owners and their lawyers. It's a universe of "gotchas," where a computer user can listen to a song, but not copy it, or download a video that evaporates after a single viewing or at a predetermined date.

A new generation of personal computers equipped with Windows XP Media Center Edition is expected to arrive in the marketplace this Christmas season at prices under $2,000. These new machines are billed as "a unified destination for entertainment" with vastly improved sound and pictures.

New audio codecs offer 5.1 Surround Sound. Video is dramatically improved in quality. Compression technology has reached the point that a full-length HD feature film can be stored on a single DVD.

The candy-coated sales pitch - designed to lure media-savvy computer users - highlights the new PC's capability to receive live television, cable and satellite broadcasts, a built-in PVR, easy digital music and video downloads, DVD capability and new tools for personal photography. "All with the freedom of remote control access."

In reality, it's freedom lost - a fact that Microsoft's Machiavellian advertising campaign turns on its head. The reality distortion field around the new media software is so great that investigative reporters for the Los Angeles Times started digging into the fine print (the stuff few read) of user agreements for the new Windows Media Player.

They found that to use the new "free" downloaded media software, one must grant Microsoft the authority to disable any computer application on the user's PC that Gates and company might deem inappropriate.

Yes, you read that correctly. You give Microsoft the right to disable applications of their choosing on your own computer. This means PC owners who dare use peer-to-peer file-swapping applications or other file copying software are granting Microsoft the legal right to disable those applications. Who said PC users don't have a big brother?

Of course, the young, technologically hip computer users who made Napster a household word are just getting wind of this new initiative by the world's top software maker. I suspect they will not take it lightly. It's a Microsoft "innovation" that's not only going to meet extreme resistance, but one that puts Microsoft in a very vulnerable position with its customers.


Even Microsoft's allies at Intel have doubts about the software maker's newly harsh attitude toward customers. "I don't think it's a tenable position to say we're just going to put technology out there and sure, it will step on consumer fair use," said Don Whiteside, Intel vice president of legal and government affairs, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

If history is any indication, the new generation of Microsoft-enabled media computers will turn Christmas into a hacker's holiday. Because of the company's continued dismal record on security issues, there will be much motivation to shoot holes in Microsoft's content protection mechanisms. If the wizard pirates beat Microsoft's system, it could be the company's Hollywood waterloo. The contest will be fun to watch.

One can easily visualize Steve Jobs - a man who promotes Apple's Macintosh computer as a user-friendly "digital hub" for media devices - standing by to welcome disaffected PC users. Apple, who revived the MP3 market last year with its successful iPod portable music player, stands in stark contrast to a Microsoft that is trying to stamp out the hard-to-tame MP3 files.

Like its predecessor, Windows Media Player 9 offers only limited support for MP3s, forcing PC owners to purchase an add-on product for full MP3 functionality. The Windows Media software will play legacy MP3s, but won't rip files in the format without third-party software. It's part of Microsoft's grand plan to make MP3 fade away.

Television broadcasters, who are next up to bat in the copy protection wars, will no doubt be watching with interest the fireworks over Microsoft's risky initiative.

Microsoft's failure with the media PC could scare Hollywood, making producers even more wary of supporting the faltering DTV transition with its much-needed content. Success, on the other hand, would probably provide a model for a new coin-operated home video infrastructure for the future.

Frank Beacham
Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.