I had a few thoughts on the recent HD-DVD folderol that was going on at Digg and other places, and I figured I would let them stew a couple of days to see what I managed to mentally sift out of them.

There have been a few interesting points made on the subject of the release of the HD-DVD key. If you haven’t heard, or you just didn’t care, or you had been left ignorant by big media news (no surprise if that’s the case), then you should know what happened before we begin.

Very simply and quickly, as I understand it: HD-DVDs are next-generation DVDs that hold more data and contain higher resolution movies. All the data on the discs are encoded with one of many secret keys (basically a special, unusually big number) that is licensed to makers of HD-DVD players so that they can decode the video contained on the disc for playback. Without the specific key for the disc, you can’t play the video, nor can you digitally transfer the video to a different format. Someone recently discovered one of these keys and made the information public, which would allow someone to write programs to remove the encryption from those discs and enable all of the things that are otherwise impossible without it. So what does Digg have to do with any of this?

We can’t exactly skip over the events at Digg for the purposes of this discussion, although I’d like to. Basically, some user at Digg - a site that links to interesting things on the net - linked to an academic discussion of the discovery of this HD-DVD key. The licensors of the key issued a demand to Digg’s operators telling them to remove that link in compliance with DMCA laws. They complied. The users of Digg lashed back in defiance, posting endless new stories containing the key number. The operators of Digg relented to their riotous community and put the original link back online.

And so, my thoughts: Since when does the DCMA apply to sites that link to sites that contain coyrighted materials? If I like to a warez site, or a site that promotes warez, does my site stand to receive a DMCA letter? It linked directly to The Pirate Bay, for example, would that constitute a violation? I think that’s crazy.

Do the licensors of the HD-DVD copy protection scheme have the right to protect their intellectual property? I have heard arguments that they should be allowed to seek legal remedies for people sharing these keys because the release of the key would damage their business. I look at this a different way.

On one hand, if you use a crappy key to protect property that many people are trying to steal, then you should expect that you’re going to get robbed. And if you really think that you’re going to be able to stop people from making copies of the key by issuing legal threats after the plans for the key have already been published, you’re crazy. But I don’t think that they care. After all, no more discs are going to be printed that use that key, so you’ll need a new key if you want to steal the content from any new discs.

There’s another issue, which is about fair use. I’m a little sketchy on fair use. I was thinking that it should be fair for me to make copies of movies that I own, for backup or transfer to other formats for my own use. But is that really what I’m being licensed when I buy a movie? I’m not sure any more. I think I’ve had the idea that these keys promote pounded into me so much that I just don’t believe in fair use any more.

Think about it - These companies do everything they can to prevent you from copying movies that you “own”. You can’t rip them to your iPod (or other, obviously better portable video device). Why? Why did they make that hard? Maybe they don’t want you to do that? Maybe they want to make money on it? Maybe you didn’t buy the right to play back that movie wherever you liked when you bought the HD-DVD. Maybe you only bought the right to play back the movie from that HD-DVD. If they made that clear from the get-go would it satisfy consumers? Probably not.

And the Digg community went completely nuts over this exact point. I think they went overboard. I think they have a good grievance, but it’s poorly directed. I don’t know that it’s right to subvert the system to incite change. I don’t know that it does any good. As we see in this case, we have a key that is now invalid. So you can use it to copy the handful of HD-DVDs that are already out, and that’s it.

Moreover, there isn’t any software (that I know of or have read about) that will use the key that everyone is publishing to make copies of HD-DVDs. The whole thing is silly. It’s paraded around as if knowing the numbers of the key makes the information free. Where’s the software that employs it? By the time we see that developed, the four HD-DVD titles that are now worth watching won’t be worth watching any more. And even if it existed today, it’s not helping me - the hapless consumer. Where’s my benefit?

The lawyers are funny. If they had just let the story go, if they had let the Digg story pass instead of sending them a takedown notice, then it wouldn’t have received hardly any of the attention that it did. And it’s still disturbing that I didn’t see any mention of this on major non-internet news channels. Did your local TV news or newspaper cover it? Probably not. I wonder if this is more about the side of the story that the mainstream media takes or that the story wasn’t big enough to bump the results of the local little league game. We’re far from needing to know that the industry is colluding to make us pay for individual chunks of freedom. It’s too much like politics and religion, I think. “Don’t look over there,” says the media.

It occurs to me that the whole thing was orchestrated by the BluRay people (the competitors to the HD-DVD format) to cast more bad light on HD-DVD. Truly, this same technology plagues BlueRay, though perhaps not this exact key. It’s just a matter of time until one of theirs is released, too. Still, the bad news comes at a serendipitous time for BluRay, who is pulling out all the stops - even buying internet ads on the word “HD-DVD” - to crush their HD-DVD enemies.

So what are we to do about the unfairness it? At this point, I’m saying “nothing”. There’s no changing this industry. They want more money for themselves, so they’re going to embed whatever devilish technologies they can into their gadgetry to allow them to snatch every last penny out of our wallets. In 20 years, we won’t even know it could ever have been any other way.

Seriously, my TV is hooked to my set top box with a single cable. In the past, I could hook a VCR in there and record anything I saw on TV. But today, the technology in that cable is such that this is impossible. This is happening under our noses and nobody realizes it. Nobody seems to care enough to do anything about it. Still, is posting the HD-DVD key all over the internet the answer to these issues? It seems like they’re using a flyswatter to kill an elephant.

Will the market economics eventually settle the feud between consumers and the studios? Likely not. The studios are an oligarchy. They know that if they collude to keep their technologies prohibitive and their prices at a certain level, they will all benefit from the stupidity of their customers. It only takes one studio to quit the oligarchy to make their whole system crumble. It’s a shame that they’re all living so well walking on our backs.