Widgets Magazine

DRM: The Ghost in the Machine

When one thinks of AV in the boardroom typically the acronyms that comes to mind are VTC (video teleconferencing) and HDMI (High Definition Media Interface). Those are not the only initial sets of which to be aware. Some of the more impactful acronyms that don’t get the same attention include DRM (Digital Rights Management), HDCP (High Definition Copy Protection), and DMCA, (Digital Millennium Copyright Act), to name a few. These letters can have a larger effect on the system performance than any hardware in the system.
Allow me to provide an explanation of how this problem can manifest itself.  Some of you are aware I work for HARMAN Professional Services. Part of my responsibilities include making presentations for clients and at industry events. At one of these events I arrived the day before and connected my laptop via HDMI to the projection system. Rehearsal went well with everything performing properly. I was able to present the PowerPoint presentation I had put together without issue. The next day I returned to setup in the morning. I plugged in my computer, using an active HDMI switching system provided by the AV vendor, the computer indicated I was plugged in and the software configured itself to dual screen usage. The problem was that there was no picture on the projection screen.
We tried a different HDMI cable with the same result. We tried different inputs on the switcher without seeing a change. We bypassed the switcher and used an HDMI in-line coupler and suddenly the picture appeared. We disconnected the laptop and reconnected the switcher and once again the projection screen was blank. However, the laptop still indicated that there was a second screen attached. We decided to forego the switching system and simply move the HDMI cable between presenter’s computers.
After the presentation we tried a little more troubleshooting. We hooked the cable from my co-presenter’s laptop into the switcher and it worked perfectly. I connected my laptop using the same cable and, again, there was no picture. If we connected the two cables via a coupler the picture returned. This pretty much ruled out everything in the system except for the switcher. I contacted the AV switch manufacturer’s tech support. Their first question was which computers were being used; an Apple MacBook Pro and a Lenovo Thinkbook.
The person I was talking with stopped me immediately. He explained the cause was that the switching system is configured so that it will not distribute any HDCP restricted content to multiple displays. The content, though, was something I had created so why was it restricted? It was explained to me that Apple products are configured to restrict their HDMI output to one display at a time.
I asked if there was a way to defeat the enforcement of the restriction on the switching hardware? At that point I was told “no, there was not.” That would make sense. If the content protection could be defeated that could easily be considered a violation of the DCMA.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act states that it is illegal for someone to purposefully disable or modify equipment to defeat the protection of content. One can read much more about it here. So while many of us know how to address this problem, one could say it is illegal as we are circumventing the protections Apple put in place. The same issue has happened with Windows Vista.
The reason I bring this topic up is that many times people do not realize the interconnected nature of our world. A rule made to prevent piracy can also just as easily prevent a legal use of content from working. The best part of all of this is that the errors might not be fully enumerated so we as technical people can be troubleshooting something we legally can’t fix. When people ask why do Josh Srago and I care so much about some of the topics such as privacy, copyright, and net neutrality it is that it impacts our AV world just as much as the world of consumers.
I have more posts coming about technology and rights in the rest of 31 for 31, this one is the spooky one as it can make it look like there is a ghost in the machine.
For further information about HDCP & DRM, check out the links below.

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