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MacBook buyers bite Apple over copy protection cock-up

DisplayPort-only direction yields iTunes playback woes

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Analysis Apple's decision to adopt the DisplayPort digital monitor connector is pissing off punters, all thanks to the technology's incorporation of a copyright protection mechanism.

DisplayPort, like HDMI, mandates copy prevention technology. DisplayPort's system is called DisplayPort Content Protection (DPCP), but it's essentially the same as the High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) mechanism used by HDMI.

Both systems were designed to ensure that digital video streams are not tapped and duplicated once they've been decoded and transmitted to a screen.

HDCP requires the video source to verify the status of the display, and if the screen's not up to snuff - from a copyright protection perspective - the source shouldn't send across the HD content. The display has to be able to signal to the source its ability to decipher the encrypted video stream the source wants to send.

That's what the latest Macs are doing. MacBook owners are hooking up old displays, none of which support HDCP, and the computers are flashing up a message warning users that they can't play HDCP-protected content without a suitable screen.

Now, this was initially detected by punters who'd tried to show illegal rips from Blu-ray Discs and HD DVDs, but it has now emerged that content legitimately acquired through - of all places - Apple's own iTunes store won't play either.

Plug in an old display that uses VGA or DVI, and the latest, DisplayPort-equipped Macs will refuse to show protected content on it because the connected screen doesn't respond to requests for HDCP status.

It's Apple's cock-up for not anticipating the huge number of folk out there with legal iTunes content, big screens and brand new MacBooks. The company can legitimately plead that these people can still play their purchases on their computers' built-in screens - and they can - but while that's correct to the letter of the law, it's not in its spirit.

Had Apple's engineers and designers thought about this, they'd do what other notebook makers do and include a VGA or DVI port on the new MacBooks. Pretty much every graphics chip and integrated chipset out there currently includes HDCP technology. What stops it bothering owners of other vendors' computers is that those machines have multiple monitor ports.

So, plug in an HDMI TV or a DisplayPort monitor, you've got a verified HDCP connection and your content plays. Plug in an old monitor or TV, and while you don't have a verified HDCP connection, your content still plays because it's being routed over a link that's doesn't care about HDCP anyway.

It will only be a problem if you connect a DisplayPort connector via an adaptor to a VGA or DVI monitor. Right now, no one's doing this but Mac users because, firstly, hardly anyone has a DisplayPort monitor and, secondly, with the other connectors available, no one needs to use an adaptor.

The only people who do are folk who own a new MacBook, MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. Apple's one-port strategy for monitors has come to bite it on the bum, big time.

What can it do? It can't disable HDCP, not least because its DisplayPort licence undoubtedly mandates the use of the copy prevention system. It could always hand out free DisplayPort monitors to affected customers, we suppose.

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