I've been really, really excited about digital video distribution lately: first Netflix greenlights jms's return to science fiction TV, and then Amazon announces their new pilots. Perhaps the decade long dearth of any good television is nearing its end! So, with that in mind, I finished up editing Slashdot for the day and sat down to watch some of these new pilots. Only to discover that Amazon has taken away my ability to watch entirely in the name of Digital Restrictions Management.
For ages now, Amazon Instant Video has worked with Android devices supporting Flash and, more importantly to many people (and me) it seems, through an unofficial XBMC plugin. It seemed like Amazon was happily using RTMPE to prevent casual stream interception, at least for content funded by others. But with the release of their new pilots, they enabled "Flash Access," Adobe's DRM that (for now) is actually effective.
This effectively kills access for everyone using GNU/Linux, even with the (officially unsupported) Adobe Flash plugin! The Adobe plugin relies on HAL for some DRM magic, but HAL is unmaintained, deprecated, and was removed from most major distros ages ago. You can't even install it by hand thanks to udev removing a few features HAL relied upon. Naturally, the Adobe Flash plugin is equally unmaintained so there is little hope even for people willing to install a piece of unmaintained software with a history of remotely exploitable security holes, instability, and poor performance.
But it seems the loss of access from XBMC is more widely felt: RMS cultists and pragmatic Windows users alike now suffer equally. And the folks who aren't GNU/Hippies with an anti-cloud-chip-on-their-shoulder might even be suffering more: they've lost access to shows and movies that they purchased.
There are a dozen pages on the XBMC forum of people pretty pissed, hundreds of angry posts on their Facebook wall, lengthy threads on Amazon's official forums. But so far the response from Amazon has simply been: it was never supposed to work, and we've fixed it.
In the absence of a clear response from Amazon, wild speculations as to why they decided to institute DRM abound: it's not intentional, piracy is a problem for them after all, Jeff Bezos personally wants to eat every XBMC user's cat, or it has something to do with those pilots.
I'd wager it had something to do with the pilots, or was somewhat unintentional (maybe they only meant to restrict HD content).
An XBMC forum member claims to have chatted with a support representative and gotten a suggestive answer:
Amazon Support: Okay, for Android devices we unfortunately don't support them except for the Kindle Fires so it was really lucky your phone was able to play our instant videos before. As to why they aren't working now, we just recently updated our Flash video playback support which is more than likely why it won't play now. I'm really sorry for any inconvenience this will cause you!
Me: I see. Was the flash video playback updated because of the new Amazon Original Pilots that was released recently?
Amazon Support:I'm honestly not sure if it was due to the pilots that came out, though the timing with the pilots and the update can't be coincidental :-)
Assuming it's not just a technical glitch (it happened once before, and Amazon turned the harder-to-break DRM off) and related to the pilots, why only now have they enabled proper DRM? Surely if content they fund is worth restricting then all content is worth restricting? After all, the party line has always been that DRM is imposed by those evil card carrying MPAA members, and not by enlightened tech companies who are just doing what has to be done to free us from the tyranny of broadcast television.
Is it that the content they already provide is widely available through piracy that they haven't cared before? Perhaps; stream ripping from Amazon/Netflix/Hulu and transforming it into a shareable form is not something a normal person would do if only because the video is streamed in mostly real-time. But there are entire groups dedicated to capturing television and uploading it, so someone out there would probably do it.
The problem is that they are going to break the DRM and pirate everything anyway. In fact. they already have (possibly nsfw, because piracy). The same goes for Netflix; their onerous DRM did nothing to stop piracy of House of Cards (finding it is left as an exercise for the reader, but Knuth would rate it 00), and yet they just posted incredible financial results and strong subscriber growth (in utter contrast to this time last year).
The cat's out of the bag: a good chunk of the world population own Infinite Copying Machines and those machines are networked. You cannot stop a determined individual from making a freely copyable version of anything digital unless you ban all output devices (certainly would make Haskell programming nicer) and burn every camera and piece of audio equipment ever built.
It seems that the same toxic thinking about distribution control that pervades the traditional networks has infected the online distributors. It's clear that torrent trackers offer something the traditional channels do not: (mostly) effortless access to content how and when you want it. But these are things that Netflix, Amazon, et al could offer as well... that they do offer. However, instead of liberalizing distribution as time goes on, the New Distributors have fallen into the same clearly failed mentality about restricting distribution that led to the entire media industry becoming a former shell of itself in a mere five years!
This mentality will only lead to failure. Pursuit of it is insanity: we are witnessing the end stages of an industry-wide collapse because of it! And it seems these new distributors have quickly forgotten that it was only the desperation of their predecessors that they were even able to license what they have now.
So, Amazon, why do you insist upon flogging people who are yelling "Shut up and take my money!"?