LoveFilm and Silverlight

Yesterday, LoveFilm announced that they are changing the technology which powers their film streaming service. From early in January the existing Flash-based system will be replaced by one which uses Microsoft’s Silverlight technology. This is extremely disappointing for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, there’s the immediate technological fallout. Silverlight doesn’t run on as many platforms as Flash does. Anyone running an older (non-Intel) Mac will no longer be able to use this service. Neither will people running Linux on their PC. This also means that people trying to access the service on an Android device will be out of luck. I don’t know how many of LoveFilm’s customers this will affect, but it can’t be a trivial number.

But it’s the second reason that makes me even more depressed. And that’s the reasoning behind the decision. Paul Thompson, the project manager for the streaming service says this:

We’ve been asked to make this change by the Studios who provide us with the films in the first place, because they’re insisting – understandably – that we use robust security to protect their films from piracy, and they see the Silverlight software as more secure than Flash.

Simply put: without meeting their requirements, we’d suddenly have next-to-no films to stream online.

This is a change that the company have been forced into by the studios who make the films that LoveFilm want to stream. The studios believe that their content needs to be protected from piracy and that Silverlight provides a higher level of security than Flash does.

They’re probably right. But they’re fighting the wrong battle.

Remember when all the digital music that you could buy had DRM? Remember what a pain it was keeping track of how to play particular tracks or which devices your were allowed to play them on? Or perhaps you don’t remember that because you were sensible enough to steer clear of that madness. Perhaps you did what most people did and just ripped your CDs or *ahem* “acquired” music from elsewhere. Eventually the record companies realised that they were fighting a battle that they couldn’t win and now we all happily buy MP3s with no DRM. Well, I say “all”, but one of the fallouts from this battle is that a generation grew up with no experience of paying for music. There are still a large number of people who think nothing of downloading music of dubious provenance rather than buying it from Amazon or iTunes. If the record companies had seen sense earlier, they might have not lost an entire generation’s worth of income.

And that’s apparently where we see ourselves again now. The film studios think they are protecting their content, but actually they are training people to go elsewhere. I would love to be able to buy digital copies of films to download or to rent access to streaming versions, but they need to be DRM-free versions that I can use as I want to use them. Not crippled versions that I can only use on devices and in ways that are approved by the studios. And if the studios are going to stop suppliers from giving me what I want, then I’ll go elsewhere. It’s not as if it’s hard to track down versions of any film or TV show that has ever been released on DVD. Or shown on a digital TV channel. We all know where to get these things, right? And we all use them. Because we’re being trained to believe that it’s the easiest way to get hold of this content. And when the easiest way is also the cheapest way, the studios lose out.

It’s not just the film studios who are re-fighting the same battle. Book publishers are doing the same thing. Pretty much any Kindle book that you buy from Amazon will have DRM. The publishers are following exactly the same short-sighted logic and reaching the same flawed conclusions. They have a slight advantage over the record labels and film studios as their old-style product is a lot harder to rip into digital format. But the arguments against what they’re doing are just as valid. Kindle book DRM has been broken repeatedly. And once the DRM is removed from just one copy of a product,  the producer of that product has lost the game.

Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. The film studios and the publishers are repeating the mistakes that the record labels were making last decade. They run the risk of alienating and losing the support of a whole generation of potential customers.

Update: I should point out that there is a Linux port of Silverlight called Moonlight. But, as I understand it, it doesn’t support the DRM features that LoveFilm would be relying on.

One comment

  1. Oh it’s far worse than that. The studios put their faith in all kinds of security theatre. For example, the location where the raw uncompressed, un-DRMed files are stored has to have, get this, thumbprint scanner-secured doors. Cos there’s no way to fool those, oh no. And physical security is all important.

    If you build a DRM-decoding piece of hardware, the studios require you to send them a manifest of chip serial numbers for some reason.

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