Bittorrent president Ashwin Navin made some headlines last year when he came out against DRM, telling IDG News Service that "DRM is bad for the content provider and it's bad for the consumer".

Last week Navin's company was back in the headlines for opening their own download store, selling DRM-protected movie and TV show downloads. In what seems like an odd twist of faith Navin can now experience first hand that DRM isn't too great for platform operators either, since Bittorrent.com has run into some major problems with their own copy protection scheme.

bittorrent.com

The first time I got aware of these problems was early last week when I tested the Bittorent.com download store. I downloaded an episode of the FX show 30 Days, which sells for 1.99 USD per episode. My Windows Media Player had no problems acquiring the license for the episode. But when I tried to play the show the screen stayed black, and a generic error message directed me to an even more generic Microsoft.com page.

First I thought something was wrong with my test system. It's a slightly older notebook after all, even though it still passes the Bittorrent.com system requirements. But then I read that other folks were struggling with the very same issues - and I got curious. Finally I found a possible explanation in the Bittorrent.com support section:

"The reason for this is an issue with Windows DRM, the rights management tool BitTorrent uses to authorize your viewing of the file you downloaded. Some of our content (like those from Fox and MGM for example) has tighter playback restrictions than others. In this case it is seeing your display settings as not allowed by the license."


The site goes on by saying that this is an issue that can be solved by updating your graphics driver:

"If you have older video drivers (pre-July 2005) and are using a laptop and/or a VGA output device there is a chance Windows Media Player will think there is something wrong."

So the obvious solution would be to do a system update and just get going, right? Well, if it only was that easy. First you have to figure out the release date of the driver you are using, and then you'll have to manually find a newer version:

"The Update Driver button in the window is unlikely to do this properly. You should go to your computer manufacturer's web site to download the latest drivers, or to the site of your video adaptor manufacturer."


Looks like watching a TV show on your computer just got really, really complicated. Especially in my case, since I'm using a four year old Sony notebook for all my Windows needs - and Sony lists the newest video driver being from 2003. Chipset manufacturer ATI apparently doesn't even remember they ever made such a chip. Seems like I'm out of luck.

Or am I? Just when I'm about to give up an email from Bittorrent's support folks comes in. They suggest to use some third party tool to modify and install ATI's drivers. Sounds adventurous, but it's supposed to work. Says the support guy whoose name I won't mention here:

"I had the same issue you had and used this tool to update my laptop's graphics card."

You know your download shop is in deep trouble when even your own support folks can't play your movies because of flawed DRM. And trouble it is for Bittorrent.com. The website confirms that content from Fox and MGM is affected, but some test reports also mention problems with rentals from Paramount. (Note: I've been trying to get an official response about this from Bittorrent for a week now. I've been told that they are still working on the issue, and I'll update this post as soon as their response comes in.)

Judging from a quick tally of the site's catalogue this means that some 800 titles may cause major playback problems for anyone who happens to own a notebook with a graphics driver that is more than 20 months old. That's about 25 percent of their total video catalogue.

But there is an upside, too. All of this will soon be over - at least if we believe Aswin Navin. Bittorrent's president wrote in his blog last year that we'll soon see the dawn of a new, DRM-free era. Maybe we should just wait things out until then and get our TV shows via The Pirate Bay Tivo like we used to. At least then we won't have waste our time with complicated driver updates.


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