17 March 2012

The Piracy Threshold epilogue

Someone told me about MakeMKV, a free bit of software for ripping Blu-Rays. I used it and showed Rare Exports to my first class of Culture and Media students yesterday. We all liked the film and found its premise and execution very original. Better yet, I have started discussing comic book adaptations with my other Culture and Media class and they thoroughly enjoyed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The rips were about 20 GB each, so not exactly portable but I now know what to do to show Blu-Rays to my students. Cyberlink were very good and didn't quibble at all about giving me the full price of PowerDVD back. I'm still out my time and the €90 I spent on a waste of time Blu-Ray drive and HDMI cable, but hey, that's the trouble with trying to do the right thing...

Oh yes, and the MKV file didn't complain about being played in VLC over the VGA cable to the projector either.

11 March 2012

The Piracy Threshold

On 17th February this year, Matt Gemmell posted an insightful and perspicacious article to his blog entitled The Piracy Threshold. In it, he describes how people basically want to be honest, but once the difficulty of being so reaches a certain level, when dishonesty is not only the easier option but also the one to keep you sane, people turn to copyright infringement in response.

Like many other people the world over, I've done my fair share of downloading in the past. As other research shows, those that download are often the greatest consumers of legally-acquired media too. I think my 650+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection, my large book library and accumulation of CDs would point to that.

Just post-Christmas I decided to spend some of my gift vouchers on the Blu-Ray of a film I didn't catch at the cinema, Rare Exports directed by Jalmari Helander. My laptop, though impressively furnished with ports and power only had a DVD drive, so my first step was to enquire with Dell, the laptop's manufacturer, about the feasibility of replacing the DVD drive with a Blu-Ray drive, and if it was something I could do myself, or would the laptop need to be returned to Dell. After 45 minutes on hold or switching departments I got the good news that yes indeed I certainly could replace the drive myself. Delighted by this I asked how much such a drive would be, whereupon I received the bad news. €738. That's nearly $1,000 or £620. For an internal Blu-Ray drive. A price I could buy a Blu-Ray equipped laptop for. Okay, next idea. The reason I wanted the Blu-Ray drive for the laptop was so that I could show my Culture and Media class the film, but obviously I wasn't willing to spend that kind of money to do so, so I thought I'd try a new angle... ah yes! Samsung do an external, USB-powered Blu-Ray drive! It doesn't burn Blu-Rays only DVDs, but that was fine. If I really needed to burn 30 GB of data, my desktop machine has a Blu-Ray burner. Right, okay. €15 for the film, €80 for the drive, but I'm sorted for any future Blu-Ray films I want to show my class, so that's an acceptable outlay.

Ah, not so fast. VLC 1.1.4, my preferred animation player can't play Blu-Rays. Since the time I started on this quest, VLC 2 came out with the potential to play Blu-Rays but only if you download an AACS dll from somewhere and a list of certificates from somewhere else, and then your Blu-Ray will play only if it is included in that list of certs. Windows Media Player doesn't read Blu-Rays (perhaps still in a sulk over the failure of HD DVD). This means I need to actually *pay* for a media player? Something I haven't done since Windows 95. Okay, let's see what's on offer...

After hunting, the main "recommendation" was Cyberlink's PowerDVD. I put the inverted commas because no-one actually recommended it, it was more a case of "Dude, I'm afraid free and open source players are probably never going to be able to offer easy Blu-Ray playback because of all the licensing". So I stumped up the £79 for PowerDVD 12, that's about €95 or $123, and installed the mess of shovelware that comes with it. I wasn't happy, but I guess I was sorted. I tried it out on my desktop machine and yes, it worked. It showed the disc. So I installed it on the laptop and it worked there too.

Now, I don't show my class films on the laptop's screen, that would be crazy. I use the school's projector to throw the image on the wall where the whole class (all 12 of them split over two classes) can see it in comfort.

When I tried to show the Blu-Ray the first time I got a warning because the projector was hooked up through VGA to the laptop and oh no, you can't play a Blu-Ray through an analogue connection! So, adding to the expense I had run up to try and show this film I had to add an HDMI cable to the mix, another €10. It would be fine, my laptop is well-furnished for I/O, it has an HDMI port and so does the projector.

Before we go further let me tell you more about my laptop. It is a Dell Precision M4600. It has an Optimus system with an integrated Intel HD chipset for low-end graphical work and an NVidia Quadro 2000M for when more grunt is needed. Fortunately, you can shove applications onto that card as you like and VLC works nicely with it. But I wasn't using VLC for showing this film, I was using PowerDVD. Hunting for the reason why it still wasn't working, I went onto the Cyberlink forum to discover that people had been complaining about the issue that PowerDVD couldn't be moved away from the integrated chipset for two years already. Nothing had been done about it in that time. I was stuffed. If I wanted to play through HDMI I needed to use the NVidia chipset because that was where the HDMI connection went to, otherwise it was only VGA, which can't be used for Blu-Ray playback.

When I go to people's houses to repair their computers I charge €45 an hour to do so. I reckon I spent at least three hours trying to sort this issue out, so let's add up:

Rare Exports: €15
Blu-Ray drive: €80
PowerDVD: €95
HDMI cable: €10
My time: €135
Total: €335

Have I reached my "Fuck this point" as Matt Gemmell so eloquently puts it? Gosh yes, some time ago, and even if I hadn't the fact that one of my students (not in that class, you greedy studios) could find a torrent of the film and download it within two hours certainly would have pushed me over that threshold. To add insult to injury, the dodgy version of the film, while not as high resolution, was actually better since the subtitles were in French.

The fact is, people do want to be honest in my experience. I certainly do. I want to reward the makers of films like Rare Exports for entertaining me (not that I've seen it yet. Part of the reason I wanted to show it to the class is so that we could discuss it fresh). I couldn't care less about rewarding the money men in the middle that have no talent except for making money turn into more money.

Interestingly, this situation and Matt Gemmell's blog post turned into quite a talking point in the class with several saying that they had been trying to purchase legitimate versions of albums or films and being unable to, found better solutions through "piracy". They are students, so not overburdenend with cash, but they wanted to give it to you film and music companies. You turned them away, so is it too hard to understand why they went and got what they wanted elsewhere? Are you stopping sales yourselves? We live in a connected world, where information can be transferred at the speed of light, but are you working by telegram? Carrier pigeon?

Take some responsibility for your own actions before you blame others.