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FAQ: Vista's strong, new antipiracy protections

Microsoft is working closely with studios in ways that could affect your home entertainment system. Here's what you need to know.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
When Microsoft's Windows Vista comes out next year, it will have unprecedented protections for content, such as video inside the system, in hopes of foiling would-be pirates.

The new technology, which could go as far as automatically turning off outputs connected to devices deemed insecure, is aimed at persuading Hollywood studios that the PC can be as safe as any consumer electronics device. Microsoft hopes that Windows-based computers will ultimately form the heart of digital home entertainment networks.

Here's what you should know about the new protections inside the operating system and how they may affect your equipment.

What's different about Microsoft's new operating system, from a content protection standpoint?
Video--and to a lesser extent audio--will have many more protections as it travels through the computer from a DVD or other source to its final destination. This will make it much harder to copy audio or video without permission from the copyright holders.

Is this like the anticopying technology on DVDs or on the songs I download from iTunes?
Not exactly. There are two different kinds of content protection.

The first, typically called "digital rights management," or DRM, wraps a piece of music or video in a layer of protection, and allows it to be played only by certain kinds of devices or under certain conditions (such as if you've paid for it). That's what happens with a DVD or iTunes song. Vista will be designed to read and respect rules attached to content.

The other type of antipiracy technology, often called "link protection," is a critical part of Vista. This tries to keep audio or video from being copied while it is sent from one device to another, or between different components inside a computer. Think of this as more like the secure telephone line between the U.S. president and the Soviet leader, which (at least in the movies) nobody could tap into.

How does this work?
One of the biggest changes in Vista is a technology called "Protected Video Path." This will essentially keep video streams encrypted and inaccessible as video is being sent from a DVD (or other copy-protected source) to the monitor, TV or other display. The operating system will also check what the computer is connected to (a monitor, a TV, and so on), do another check to make sure the device really is what it says it is, and then see what kind of plug, or output mechanism, is being used to connect the computer to the device.

Vista will go much further than previous operating systems in checking devices that are several steps downstream, if several digital components are connected to each other. If it finds that there is a device that doesn't respect DRM rules, or if it finds a plug that doesn't support transmission of those copy-protection rules, it might not let the video be sent through that output at all.

Doesn't that mean that some TVs or monitors won't be able to play high-definition movies, even if the computer can?
Eventually it might. Some early HD TVs have digital connections (such as DVI, or Digital Video Interface) that don't support transmission of copy-protection rules, and Vista won't let these show HD content. Many monitors and TVs today also have high-resolution analog connections that don't support protection.

Vista does have one workaround that will let these monitors and TVs operate, however. If the analog (VGA, or Video Graphics Array) plug is all that is available, for example, the operating system has features that will reduce the resolution of the video, and then recode it on the fly. The result will be video that's slightly fuzzier, without the high resolution of the original, but the video will be watchable at about the quality of today's DVDs.

Vista isn't alone in this feature. New consumer electronics devices that can play next-generation DVDs will also be incompatible with some monitors or TVs deemed insecure by studios.

How common will this be? Is it likely that my monitor or TV will have problems?
Microsoft hopes that problems will be infrequent, and that most consumers won't have any idea that these protections even exist. The company has released information about this system to the computer manufacturers in hopes that the secure connections will be standard on monitors and TVs by the time Vista is released. The secure connections--such as Intel's HDCP (High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection)--are already standard on most HD televisions sold today.

Why is it all so complicated? Can't I just copy the video by plugging the computer into a recorder instead of a TV, anyway?
Not necessarily. Most new digital recorders are built with technology that checks for copy-protection rules and won't copy a video if it's marked "Don't copy." If Vista finds that there is a recorder that doesn't play by these rules, or if the video is going out a connection deemed insecure, it may simply shut down that output altogether (depending on what rules the studio has attached to the content).

Will this affect how I use my monitor with any other applications?
No. In the worst-case scenario, the computer will down-sample or shut down the outputs only while you're trying to play an HD movie or other content over a connection that the studio has deemed insecure. You'll still be able to use any other application on your computer at other times.

Will this affect me if I work with digital video or audio at home? Could my own work get trapped inside the computer?
In general, no. All of these safeguards will only come into play if there's content involved that has very strong digital rights management wrappers already applied. If you're working on your own projects, these flags won't be turned on, and your audio and video will flow through the computer the normal way.