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“Microsoft is giving [the studios] tools for enforcing [DRM] on consumers,” Schoen says. “So Microsoft can say ‘we’re not doing it, the media company is doing it,’ which is correct. But the media company is doing it with tools provided by Microsoft.”

Schoen says that he spoke with video-card manufacturers at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle last April. He says the companies (which he declined to identify) told him that if they opted out of the PMP system, they’d be frozen out of the market for Windows media products, such as home theaters. “So they have no choice but to play along,” says Schoen. “I don’t anticipate that any of them will fight this and be shut out.”

“Given the lack of competition in the movie industry, and, to a lesser extent, the lack of competition in the PC software market, I can understand the fear that the video-card makers are feeling,” Schoen adds.

Despite repeated calls, Disney, Sony, and 20th Century Fox declined to comment on Schoen’s arguments.

Microsoft’s Matthias insists that the goal of Vista’s new DRM technology is to improve the security of personal computers–not to lock out hardware that’s unauthorized by the studios. “Having said that, there is a role to enable content protection to drive legitimate usage of content,” he says.

And Paul Lypaczewski, vice president and general manager of multimedia business for ATI Technologies, one of the major video-card makers, denies any strong-arming from Microsoft or the studios. The aim of all parties involved, he says, is to provide a secure platform.

“By having greater opportunities for premium content on the platform, it opens up more opportunities for the end user, and that’s what we care about,” Lypaczewski says. “If the people who provide and display the content are confident that it’s a good and robust platform, then those models are tenable.”

Still, Lypaczewski says he understands both Schoen’s and the studios’ concerns. “Digital rights management is not a bad thing,” he adds. “The studios have an earnest desire to not have their properties stolen, and you can’t blame them for that. We’re working closely with the studios to make sure protections are in place to protect content on that platform.”

For Schoen, though, Vista’s restrictions on how digital media amount to a further erosion of consumers’ long-standing right to mix and match, reverse-engineer, or tinker with the hardware and software they’ve purchased, as long as they don’t violate intellectual property laws in the process.

In August, another critic of the Vista scheme, Princeton University computer scientist Ed Felten, wrote in his blog, which is titled Freedom to Tinker: “Law-abiding people will be paying more for PCs, and doing less with them, because of the Hollywood-decreed micromanagement of graphics system design.”

On the Net:

  • Seth Schoen’s articles at www.eff.org
  • Microsoft’s explanation of DRM features in Windows Vista
  • Freedom to Tinker, a blog by Princeton U. computer scientist Ed Felten on restrictions on user-modifiable technology
  • “Why would MS do Hollywood’s Bidding?,” a blog entry by the EFF’s Fred von Lohmann

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