DRM vs The Analog Hole

I remember attending a conference on digital rights management, some years ago. DRM schemes, such as the copy restrictions on DVDs that limit viewing to one region of the world, or those in iTunes that restrict the number of devices a song can be played on, were still a new thing.

At the conference, one of the speakers argued in favor of very strong DRM. When asked how, say, a scholar could â''quoteâ'' a multimedia work, the speaker said that a video, for example, could be played on a TV, with a videocamera aimed at the screen to re-record what appears there. Audio and video could always be recaptured through this â''analog hole,â'' the speaker noted.

Analog copies are inferior to digital ones, however, so at the time, the audience has little use for this idea. Analog copies degrade with each iteration, like the faded urban legends and ethnic jokes that travel by fax machine down the decades.

I hadnâ''t thought of this in years, but last night, after installing something called the HD Stick, from Pinnacle Systems, I realized that I now had not one, but two perfect tools on my computer for grabbing stuff through the analog hole, with hardly any of the degradation problems. The other tool, which I installed a few months back, is WireTap Studio.

WireTap Studio does one thing, and it does it very well. It captures any audio coming into, or out of, the computer, and it does it at the sourceâ''the digital bits, as they enter or exit. Thus, you can start playing a song in iTunes, for example, and a split second later start recording it. The result is an MP3 file that can be played on any device and is, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from the DRMâ''d one. You can also set a timer to capture a webcast of a radio program.

Pinnacleâ''s HD Stick does much the same thing for television. I used the TV for Mac product; of course thereâ''s one for Windows as well. The heart of it is a software program and a USB stick, larger than a flash drive, to which you can attach either a supplied antenna, to capture over-the-air broadcast television programming, or a cable that can in turn be connected to a cable-television-service set-top box. The software not only lets you switch channels but record. The results, again, are DRM-free digital versions of your favorite shows. Essentially, any old computer can become a digital video recorder, but with one wonderful twistâ''the resulting shows can be copied to another computer.

Thereâ''s nothing new about these capabilities, and people have been using something like the HD Stick to create the snippets of current shows that are routinely posted to YouTube. (Pinnacleâ''s ability to capture over-the-air signals, especially high-definition ones, however, may be unique.) What is remarkable, though, is how easily and routinely content is now flowing through the analog hole. It makes you wonder if thereâ''s any point left to digital rights management schemes.

Related Stories

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement
Advertisement