No High Definition iTunes Video for You

If you thought buying videos through the iTunes Store was the online equivalent of buying them on DVD or Blu-ray, think again.

In a completely unexpected development, owners of the October 2008 MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air have discovered that the new Mini DisplayPort includes High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) – and this makes it impossible to view some iTunes videos on external displays.

Video Nazi

HDCP is part of the DisplayPort standard, and we understand the needs of movie studios and others to protect their copyrights. The thing is, iTunes already has Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management (DRM) technology, which, for instance, limits the use of iTunes Store music tracks to five authorized Macs and an unlimited number of iPods.

But until the release of the October 2008 ‘Books, Apple didn’t prevent notebook users from watching their videos on an external display, so the new restriction came as a shock to new MacBook owners.

‘Display Not Authorized’

Whether connected to a video projector, a VGA display, or even a genuine pre-DisplayPort Apple Cinema Display,* the message is the same: “This movie cannot be played because a display that is not authorized to play protected movies is connected.”

This doesn’t impact all high definition video from the iTunes Store. As David Chartier of Ars Technica puts it, “The technology in Apple’s MacBooks . . . prevents a seemingly arbitrary collection of iTunes Store files from being played on HDCP non-compliant devices….”

In short, what is happening is that Apple is selling you HD content without warning you that you might not be able to view it on an external display connected to its latest notebooks. Maybe Apple considers this a way to sell more Apple TV units (at US$199 and up), as they do allow you to view protected content.

If that’s the case, I have two words for Apple: Poor form!

Darrell Etherington of The Mac Blog states:

“One of the great incentives to even rent movies through iTunes is the ability to play it back on your HDTV or projector. If new MacBook owners (who represent a very sizeable group) feel like they’re playing Russian roulette when they rent content from iTunes, they’d simply stop doing it.”

HDCP isn’t new – Blu-ray players, high-def TVs, and even Apple’s own Apple TV have supported it for some time. If your digital television supports HDMI, you should be good to go.

Still, it doesn’t seem right that you can’t view some high-def iTunes Store videos on whatever you want – and it flies in the face of fair use of copyrighted material. With regard to HDCP, the FCC has stated, “These devices may not permit content to flow only through a particular type of output.” Yet that seems to be precisely what Apple is doing.

MPAA Is King, Not the Customer

Increasingly, copyright law seems more interested in restricting the rights of the end user (i.e., the customer, as in “the customer is king”) than allowing the buyer or renter to freely use the material as defined under fair use doctrine.

On the other hand, this can only benefit Low End Mac, as it’s one more reason to buy Apple’s pre-October 2008 ‘Books, since they don’t prevent you from viewing this content on an external display. And for low-end FireWire fans, this is just one more reason to avoid the Unibody MacBook.

Let’s hope Apple doesn’t use DisplayPort as the only external display technology in its 2009 desktops. Sure, that would help sell more DisplayPort monitors and Apple TVs, but that’s quite a price for end users to pay so they can watch any video they might purchase from the iTunes Store. (You can buy a DVD and avoid these problems.)

As long as Apple says “no high-def iTunes video for you,” Mac users should be willing to say to Apple, “no new Mac or iTunes video purchases for you.”

* We’re guessing that viewing HDCP content is not an issue with Apple’s new $899 24″ LED Cinema Display, since it has a Mini DisplayPort connector. Quite a price to pay so you can watch high-def video on something larger than your ‘Book’s 13.3″ or 15.4″ screen.

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