Meet the new DRM, same as the old DRM

Publication date: 29 June 2008
Originally published 2007 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.

 

If you wanted to watch recorded movies or record TV shows at home in the early '70s, things were grim.

Betamax VCRs came out in 1975 and VHS in 1976. In 1970, though, your only option was an open-reel "Video Tape Recorder", conceptually similar to a reel-to-reel audio recorder but more complex, more expensive, more temperamental, and black-and-white only.

Compact audio cassettes had been popular since the mid-'60s, though. So the market was well and truly ready for a video version of the same thing.

In 1971, Sony's U-Matic system hit the market, with huge one-hour cassettes and even huger VCRs, which didn't necessarily work at all with cheap TVs and which never made much of an impact on the consumer market. U-Matic became very popular in the TV-production and commercial markets - a lot of schools still have those monster top-loading U-Matic VCRs gathering dust in a storeroom - but domestic buyers were waiting for something better.

What they got, in the few years before Beta and VHS, was something much worse. And your friend and mine, Digital Rights Management - well, Analogue Rights Management, at the time - was the reason why.

In 1972, two home video cassette formats arrived that both promised to be (somewhat) cheaper and smaller than U-Matic.

The first, from Philips, was not horribly flawed. It had a dud name - "Video Cassette Recording", or "VCR". And it still wasn't cheap, and it wasn't very reliable, especially if you used the maximum-duration one-hour cassettes.

But it was colour, and it pretty much worked.

The second 1972 cassette format was much more hilarious.

It was called Cartrivision, and it was produced by Cartridge Television, Incorporated, which was a subsidiary of the company that owned Embassy Pictures.

Embassy Pictures was a quite successful movie production and distribution company. The Graduate, Blade Runner, This Is Spinal Tap... oh, and also Billy the Kid versus Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter.

You can see where this is going, can't you?

Embassy couldn't possibly allow Cartrivision to just be a general purpose record-and-playback system. They were just like today's split-personality entertainment megacorps, who on the one hand want as many people as possible to pay to "enjoy" their "content", but on the other hand would rather like it if any customer who even considered copying some of that content for a friend immediately burst into flames.

Technically, Cartrivision was quite adequate. It could record and play back colour - at only ten frames per second, but that looked less awful than you'd think. There was an optional tethered black and white video camera, which cost as much in inflation-adjusted dollars as a big old 3-CCD semi-pro digital camcorder does today, yet had lousy sensitivity and no sound unless you also bought the equally optional microphone. But it still gave instant results, which was a pretty big deal in those days of film home-movie cameras.

And Cartrivision had a timer record function, too. And pre-recorded tapes could even have stereo sound.

Pre-recorded tapes were, of course, the backbone of the home video revolution. It took a while for the movie companies to figure out that they were a good thing, though, and Embassy Pictures certainly weren't in the vanguard.

You could, you see, buy pre-recorded tapes for your Cartrivision system.

But none of those tapes were movies.

You could get documentaries, sports, soft porn (with great educational value!), cartoons and, according to the promotional material...

..."for the with-it set, the pulsing, driving, right-on sound of rock"!

But if you wanted actual cinematic films, you could only rent them.

This, by itself, was not a disaster. Movie rental turned out to be a huge business, and Cartridge Television were the first to do it.

But because Embassy Pictures were in the movie business, they saw absolutely no reason to let people who rented a movie on Cartrivision watch it more than once.

So movies came on special tapes, which could not be rewound. Well, not without the special machine they kept back at Rental H.Q., anyway.

You got to watch your movie exactly once, then you had to send it back. Via UPS courier, since there wasn't exactly a Cartrivision joint on every corner. Then, after the tape had been professionally rewound, you could rent it again, if you liked.

Each rental cost, in inflation-adjusted dollars, at least as much as buying a new-release movie on DVD today.

Amazingly, a bit more than a year after launching Cartrivision, Cartridge Television went broke (much to the joy of hobbyists, who could now buy Cartrivision machines for a revolutionary $150).

Embassy Pictures survived, though; the Coca-Cola megacorp eventually bought them in 1985.

It is, of course, all very well for us to point and laugh at past home video technologies that didn't work out, but that's the same as making fun of outlandish early aircraft. To some extent, people should have thought of the unmarketability of rental tapes you could only watch once, but people didn't know in advance that this wouldn't work, any more than they knew in advance that a plane with fifty stacked airfoils was doomed to failure. Nobody'd seen a working video cassette recorder business yet, so they didn't know what one looked like.

And the un-rewindable movies definitely weren't the only reason why Cartrivision failed. You could only buy a Cartrivision VCR built into a combination TV unit that cost a third as much as a Chevrolet Corvette, for instance. And a warehouse full of Cartridge Television's tape stock all died because of humidity. But the user-hostile rental policy absolutely did not help.

Now, here we are in the jetpacks and rayguns year of 2008 - but the "content" companies apparently still think un-rewindable Cartrivision rental tapes sound pretty keen.

"Single-play" movies and music seem to be irresistibly attractive to media companies, even though the idea has been tried over and over and over again, and failed as miserably as Cartrivision every single time.

And today, the DRM-loving companies do not have the excuse that they're blazing a new trail and have no way to tell what'll work. They're very definitely repeating the mistakes of the past, right down to making play-limited movies. OK, nowadays you're more likely to download that movie than have it delivered by UPS, but the principle is the same.

But hey, it's only been thirty-six years since this Cartrivision advertorial...

...on What's My Line.

Perhaps it'll take 'em fifty to get the message.

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