Thursday, 12 October 2017

I Shudder At Restrictions And Film Companies - DRM Strikes Again


I Like Horror

A friend recently suggested I'd like the film service Shudder. And they were right, in that it got my interest straight away, with its wide range and curated collections. It seemed like such a good option. I love horror! Most of the films I watch are horror films. I don't have a TV - never have - so on the rare times I watch stuff it is films, or old series like Hammer Horror, played on a laptop connected to a projector. So I thought - Shudder will be great! I could picture myself subscribing permanently.

Sadly, much as I love horror, I hate DRM and restrictions (as my many posts on the subject illustrate). And like all the mainstream film streaming services I've looked at, Shudder is also rife with DRM and restrictions to the point that it is unusable for me. It doesn't work with my setup, my viewing preferences, or my devices and hardware. It should do - all my gadgets are capable of displaying films in pretty much any format - but the problems with Shudder and the like are all to do with DRM and arbitrary restrictions from film companies and services.

Normal Film Viewing Scenarios

First, let me clarify the two main scenarios where I would have watched the films.

1. On the sofa, laptop hooked up to the projector. The films could be via the browser (I prefer Firefox) or a special program, that doesn't bother me. But ideally they can be downloaded in advance of watching. Why? Because my broadband speed is merely okay. Sometimes I can watch streamed HD films without many problems. But if neighbours start big downloads then it affects the contention rate, and the speeds slow down. Ditto if someone else in my house starts using the Internet, or if Windows decides to force software updates on me. Then films stutter badly, pause, need buffering. It really ruins the immersion when that happens. Almost as bad as watching a film at the cinema when someone in the row in front keeps talking. If the film can be downloaded in advance it gets round this common problem.

2. The second scenario is watching films on my Kindle Fire HD in bed in the dark with headphones. There's something creepy about it, up close to the small screen surrounded by blackness. Great for horror. Again, downloading in advance is better, for the reasons given, plus because I turn off the wi-fi router downstairs at night before locking up. No point wasting electricity and resources, or risking fires - I know someone whose house burned down, a fire caused by a radio that was left plugged in with the socket turned on, even though the device wasn't in use. I'll avoid that (unlikely-but-possible) risk, thanks.

Neither viewing scenario is bizarre or uncommon. Still, I decided to contact Shudder and just make sure that at least one of these two scenarios was possible - but ideally both.

Shudder Won't Work With Them

Guess what? Neither will work with Shudder.

With regards to the living room laptop they told me: "We do not support HDMI compatibilities at this time, so a computer connected to a projector will unfortunately not work with our service." "HDMI nor VGA is supported at this time." So they even restrict what cables you use and what you watch the films on.

Also "we do not allow for movies to be downloaded and watched without a connection." That's pretty useless then for anyone in a rural area with slow broadband speeds.

No joy with my Kindle Fire HD either. As well as there being no offline option: "We do not support mobile browsers on phones or tablets (android or iOS)" and "we are not compatible with Kindle Fire". I only found the latter out after trying to install the Shudder App from the Amazon Store and getting a raft of error messages.

This is why you can't believe the marketing when you look at a service. Always look into the detail of how you would use it, because behind the lists of promising features, there are usually hidden lists of restrictions. Although this kind of thing should be clear from their website, it isn't, and required multiple Twitter messages and emails to find out.

Let me emphasise: there's nothing broken or non-standard about my hardware. It is fully capable of displaying video. The projector and Kindle screen will display whatever is sent to it without any problem, from browsers or software. Distributors don't have to do anything to make that magic work, that's the beauty of it. For it not to work it means the service itself is adding problems where they shouldn't exist.

DRM And Restrictions Piss Me Off

Honestly, DRM and arbitrary restrictions really piss me off. They are based on the tacit assumption that customers are all potential criminals and can't be trusted. And the people who suffer are the legitimate customers, not the pirates. I once had to return a brand new projector. It wasn't broken - it worked fine. But the Macrovision signal film companies added to many DVDs degraded the signals so much that the films became unwatchable. It's the usual false positive DRM creates. I owned the DVDs, I owned the hardware, and I was just trying to watch them, but DRM kicked in and prevented it. It took months of aggravation to pinpoint the cause and argue my case for a replacement projector even though, technically, it worked fine. I almost lost £1,000 on that one, with no comebacks against the people adding DRM to purposefully break things.

Other Industries Are Slowly Ditching DRM

The music industry gave up the battle years ago, and have benefited ever since. I buy more MP3s now than I ever did. I love music. And the music industry saves a fortune on ineffective DRM systems. Now people who want to buy music but avoid DRM restrictions can do that. Fantastic, we all win!

In the games industry GOG sells games that are DRM-free, none of that broken Denuvo crap (thankfully the publishers of Inside and Doom later removed Denuvo, so I could go and buy their games - I loved Inside). I buy loads of games from GOG. More than I'll ever get round to playing, I imagine. Great games like Witcher 3, Soma, Observer, Outlast 2, Hellblade, The Solus Project, and Little Nightmares. GOG even sell some DRM-free films such as The Frame, Ink etc.

In the book industry the smart players avoid adding DRM. It only annoys and inconveniences legitimate customers, not the pirates. Even when books have DRM it can be easily bypassed. Heck, even print copies can be ripped. I remember when JK Rowling didn't want the Harry Potter books to be available as e-books. It didn't stop it happening, it just meant one person scanned then OCR'd the books and distributed them as pirate copies, and millions of people read those instead of buying the e-books as they would have done if they'd been able to. Open up, don't close down.

But Film Companies Love DRM

But the film companies are stupid. They waste millions on DRM technologies and tying it in to hardware, with the end result that things often break; they can't be ported from one device to another; they can't be backed up; all sorts of technical problems occur that can't be easily resolved. And the most stupid thing of all - people can get a better experience and more reliable outcome from ripped versions of the film. Then the film companies get no money at all. Film companies should let go of their ridiculous obsession with DRM. Even with all this DRM, it would be easy to display the film then rip it to my hard drive.

And So They Lose Custom

And so I save my money. Instead of people like me taking out subs to film services, or buying films, it just isn't worth the bother. I spend most of that money on other media instead: books and music and games. The film industry puts off the very people who would have been their most loyal customers, and instead of adding to the profits, they get nothing, yet continue to spend millions on their ongoing tech war and legal cases. Their war is against shadows, and they are so frightened that they lash out and don't realise they are sometimes punching their friends. You wonder why films are so expensive? Because of this, plus the lost revenue and frustration that DRM creates.

I don't know how much of Shudder's restrictions are down to some of the film companies, directors or distributors being dicks, and how much is down to companies like Shudder pro-actively implementing DRM restrictions rather than arguing against them, but the end result sucks. I'm sure some directors would be happy with DRM-free. It may be like with books, where many authors prefer to remove the restrictions, but some distribution platforms add it even though you don't want them to.

Seriously, I'm throwing money at the screen for films and it just keeps landing in my lap.

I'll keep my eye on services like Shudder. If they ever remove some of the stupid restrictions they'll gain a lot more customers and fans, rather than creating annoyance and bad feeling among people who would have been their best and most loyal customers.



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3 comments:

Damian Yerrick said...

Without digital restrictions management, how can your privilege to view a film end once the agreed-upon rental period ends?

Karl Drinkwater said...

Hi Damian,

1. If it's a sub, streaming service - once the subscription ends, you don't let them log in.

2. If it's a sale service - it's irrelevant.

3. If they use an app with DRM for rented downloads - at least make sure it's available on every platform.

Not that the DRM removes the privilege. A user could just have recorded it, to play whenever they want. DRM doesn't prevent that.

Karl Drinkwater said...

Regardless: anyone could just download the film ready-ripped with no DRM, so it is still ineffective.

I notice you program retro games - respect is due for that! Though it ties in with DRM.

I still play the C64, Amiga and Spectrum games I bought as a child. The physical media have long since degraded.

The publishers never released the games to the public domain, or removed the DRM, and no longer sell them. Some are lost forever.

The only reason I can still play them is because some people put the effort in to strip the DRM from some of the games.

So many great games! A history of our interactive format. Lost forever if left up to the publishers (many of which folded).

But even if you're pro-DRM, fine, we can agree to disagree. I still wish you best of luck in programming and squashing bugs. :-)