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The DVD devils are at it again


Anyone who has ever lived outside of North America knows what a nuissance DVD region codes are to the average person just trying to watch legitimate DVD movies. Worse yet, outside of North America the problem is so bad that most DVD players sold are multi-region and defeat the region codes anyways. Now the movie studios are going to try it again. Who was it that said "Trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity." ?

The new idea is to implant RFID chips into DVD's. These are cheap and can easily be embedded with unique serial numbers. One part of the idea is not so bad. The first stated purpose is so that individual disks can be tracked as they move from factories to stores to homes and many products not just DVD's are moving towards this. Most products however are putting the RFID chips in the product packaging, not the product itself.

It is the second application that has worrisome effects. The movie industry now plans to have DVD players upgraded to check the RFID chip as part of the play cycle and if regions do not match up, the DVD will not play. The hope is that while the data might be copiable, the RFID chip will not be.

Privacy Concerns

"IPICO (largest manufacturer of DVD's and inventors of this technique) claims that its RFID tags can be read a minimum six meters away, and at a rate of thousands of tags per minute."

Has anyone even bothered to think about privacy implications? I can think of a few. You know those racy videos you picked up on your last International trip? Well guess what, now your neighbors can find out what you are watching. If you live in a city or apartment building that could be quite a few neighbors. Even in America, someone could drive by most houses and read what DVD's you have. I am not sure why anyone would want to do that, but there are certainly countries with governments who would, and have done similar things. For you Americans - better be careful about that Fahrenheit 911 video - I am pretty sure there is some provision with enough wiggle room in the Patriot act to get you in trouble.

But enough of home invasion, let me propose something that is very likely. Every buy DVD's abroad? Did you know in many countries there are strict import restrictions on movies and other media? And I do not just mean countries like Iraq. Singapore, China and others are lesser known, but even many European and other countries have weird laws. Coming back from Europe with a non region 1 DVD? What could you possibly want with that in America? Now customs can read every DVD in your checked or hand bags, and even know not just the region but each and every title. Maybe you have have too many videos of a certain type?

Consumer Problems

The next inevitable step is that these new DVD's will slowly evolve and refuse to play in DVD players that cannot read and verify the RFID chip. This will force all of us to prematurely replace our DVD players as well as DVD drives in our computers. Of course Blu-Ray and HD DVD will do this anyways, but I expect that costs factors will keep normal DVD players around for a bit as well as production cycles and the fact that for many users they do not need something better. Their local video rental place has all normal DVD's - why should they want to upgrade their player? Remember how long VHS took to go away? In fact I was bicycling the other day and passed a video rental club that specialized in only VHS titles.

Piracy Problems

The dirty secret is that this new technique will have no or little effect on piracy in the long term. It will only have an effect in the short term until pirates can adapt. There are several easy ways to bypass this scheme.

  1. Modify a legitimate DVD player to fake the chip read and modify region codes. This will surely happen. Sure the makers believe they have encoded enough info in there, but RFID chips are limited in how much data they contain. It will not take hackers long to find a way to mimic work around this. We saw several rounds of this with DVD region codes. DVD makers updated DVD's to check to ensure that DVD players were not region free, so DVD players were updated to see what the DVD wanted and report back that it was a single region player of that type, or allow the user to preset it and change it at will.
  2. Other formats will emerge and copies will go into these formats. RatDVD, DIVX, VideoCD have all proven this. In fact this new scheme will only increase the demand for a new format and once it is commonplace home DVD players will be updated to play the new formats as well. Most DVD players today already play MP4 and DIVX.
  3. Factory copying - This new scheme totally overlooks that a large number of pirate DVD's come directly from the factories themselves. Most factories are in Asia and other places where piracy is rampant. They produce legitimate DVD's by day, and pirate ones by night. When I lived in Russia pirate DVD's used to come from China, until a major DVD fabrication plant came online in Russia. Now the variety is even larger and cheaper.

The Real Problem

DVD movies are too expensive. In the US movies average about $20, in Europe about $30. However any movie can be easily rented and copied for about $3 in most countries, or a pirate copy bought for around $4. The production cost of a DVD is far below $1.

If the movie companies were smart, they would start selling movies for $5. At $5 they would cut out the rental business very quickly. After will who would rent for $3 when you can buy for $5? Sure rental prices would then plummet to maybe $1. But even then the amount of sales would more than quadruple easily increasing profits, and radically reducing piracy.

Further Reading


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