I don’t know how I missed this story. The CamcorderInfo blog alerts me that Macrovision has sued Sima Products, which manufactures so-called video enhancers that do a pretty good job of fixing Macrovision’s analog copy protection scheme. Using the Digital Millenium Copyright Act as its weapon Macrovision won a preliminary injunction against Sima back in June.
Sima is appealing and the case has been bumped up to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
As Ars Technica points out, the consumer electronics manufacturers, along with the Amercian Library Association and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are lining up with Sima. What’s interesting about their arugment is that they’re saying Macrovision’s analog copy protection doesn’t prevent copies. Rather, it just makes it hard to get a good copy.
If you’ve ever tried to copy a commercially produced VHS tape, or tried to copy a DVD to a VHS tape, and seen the picture cycle from being normal to going dark, sometimes losing sync, then you’ve seen the effect of Macrovision. All it does is introduce distortion in the signal that preys on the automatic gain control used in most VCRs. Some VCRs are more immune from it than others, but it’s variable.
So Sima’s copy enhancers simply allow you to get a better quality copy. And since they do it by digitizing the signal, then converting it back to analog, the improvement is really just a byproduct of the conversion and fixing what is, in effect, a faulty original video signal.
What’s most evil about Macrovision’s suit is that it really has nothing to do with large-scale illegal copying. It’s far more efficient to copy DVDs using deCSS rippers and DVD burners than a real-time analog dupe. Plus, the analog conversions do reduce the quality somewhat.
Essentially, Macrovision is attacking what amounts to fair use copying on the scale of home taping and CD burning. Anyone using a Sima enhancer is copying things in real time, so they can’t be pumping out hundreds of copies. And they may just be copying clips.
That last use is the one I encounter most in my day job doing video work at a university. Instructors in cinema, languages, drama and literature like to use short film clips to illustrate lots of different points in class. And, it’s perfectly legal to do so. Making a clip tape (or DVD) makes it a lot easier to use clips in class, taking out all the fast-forwarding, cueing up and other hassle that takes up valuable time in class.
But the Macrovision encoded in VHS tapes and DVDs often makes this a frustrating experience, even though faculty are almost always using copies they own or that were bought by the institution.
So the Sima boxes are a great aid to these instructors, allowing them to make better use of the media they own or can legally access for purely educational purposes. But if Macrovision wins this case, that part of the analog hole will go away.
Of course, I don’t think it will go away completely. My guess is that Sima’s boxes are designed and manufactured by some company in China, and you can probably buy the same thing under a dozen other off-brands if you look hard enough. So while Sima might be prevented from selling them, they’ll pop up somewhere else, but be harder to find.
What’s especially frustrating about Macrovision’s bully position is that their analog copy protection shouldn’t work on digital recording devices like DVD recorders or analog capture devices for PCs. But the manufacturers of these items are bullied into designing them so that they can detect the signature qualities of Macrovision’s degeneration of the signal. So most DVD recorders will refuse to record when they detect it, and a lot of capture devices will either pass on the bad quality or also refuse to capture.
So if you’ve ever thought you might want to be able to copy a VHS tape or DVD for fair use purposes, now is a good time to go buy that Sima copy enhancer (I’ve already got mine).