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It’s the DRM, Stupid

DVD had a lot of advantages over VHS. It didn’t need rewinding and it was physically smaller. Perhaps more importantly, it could be played on computers. A lot of students now just watch DVDs on their computer instead of on a stand-alone player.

The audio industry has already been through this transition. After the DVD was released, there were two competing standards using the same disc for higher fidelity audio.

Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD Audio (DVD-A) both contained uncompressed, high-definition audio recordings. Although neither had anything like the advertising budget of the new video standards, they both offered similar improvements in quality.

The winner of this format war? The MP3 file.

It wasn’t until very recently that the music industry started selling downloads. Before then, the only way to (legally) get them was to buy a CD and rip it.

Fortunately, this was very easy to do. Applications such as iTunes make this a zero-click operation: put the CD in and it’s ripped and ejected. Even after a lot of people started using computers and portable digital music players, CDs remained popular because they were easy to rip.

In principle, starting with a higher-quality source would have made the final rip better. Possibly this is not apparent if you’re encoding to MP3, but higher bit-rate AAC or some form of lossless CODEC would have made a difference.

So why don’t people rip SACDs instead of CDs? Because SACD data is encrypted and can’t be ripped without complicated hardware.

DVD-A also includes copy protection. This was cracked in 2005, making it possible to rip these discs, but distributing this crack is illegal in the USA, so commercial music jukebox software is likely to remain unable to rip the discs.

Ripping an album of music to a lossy format typically requires somewhere between 50–100MB of disk space. Doing the same with a movie requires up to 1GB of space.

With desktop hard drives now measured in the hundreds of gigabytes, this is starting to look feasible. Even the new iPods with 160GB disks represent a fairly respectable film collection.

Ripping DVDs is still not supported in mainstream applications, but since the DRM was cracked a long time ago, there are tools that make it easy. This is not the case with the newer formats; ripping them is not possible yet.

A bigger issue than the DRM currently is the fact that drives for computers are not yet common. This means that you can’t watch an HD movie on a laptop while traveling, for example, which was one of the big advantages that DVD offered over VHS. This limitation does not apply to downloaded HD content, of course.

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