A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection

A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection
A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection 

           A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection
Peter Gutmann, 
                     Last updated 27 December 2006

Executive Summary

Windows Vista includes an extensive reworking of core OS elements in 
order to provide content protection for so-called "premium content", 
typically HD data from Blu-Ray and HD-DVD sources.  Providing this 
protection incurs considerable costs in terms of system performance, 
system stability, technical support overhead, and hardware and software 
cost.  These issues affect not only users of Vista but the entire PC 
industry, since the effects of the protection measures extend to cover 
all hardware and software that will ever come into contact with Vista, 
even if it's not used directly with Vista (for example hardware in a 
Macintosh computer or on a Linux server).  This document analyses the 
cost involved in Vista's content protection, and the collateral damage 
that this incurs throughout the computer industry.

Executive Executive Summary

The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute 
the longest suicide note in history.


This document looks purely at the cost of the technical portions of 
Vista's content protection [Note A].  The political issues (under the 
heading of DRM) have been examined in exhaustive detail elsewhere and 
won't be commented on further, unless it's relevant to the cost 
analysis.  However, one important point that must be kept in mind when 
reading this document is that in order to work, Vista's content 
protection must be able to violate the laws of physics, something that's 
unlikely to happen no matter how much the content industry wishes it 
were possible.  This conundrum is displayed over and over again in the 
Windows content-protection specs, with manufacturers being given no 
hard- and-fast guidelines but instead being instructed that they need to 
display as much dedication as possible to the party line.  The 
documentation is peppered with sentences like:

  "It is recommended that a graphics manufacturer go beyond the strict 
  letter of the specification and provide additional content-protection 
  features, because this demonstrates their strong intent to protect 
  premium content".

This is an exceedingly strange way to write technical specifications, 
but is dictated by the fact that what the spec is trying to achieve is 
fundamentally impossible.  Readers should keep this requirement to 
display appropriate levels of dedication in mind when reading the 
following analysis [Note B].

Disabling of Functionality

Vista's content protection mechanism only allows protected content to be 
sent over interfaces that also have content-protection facilities built 
in. Currently the most common high-end audio output interface is S/PDIF 
(Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format).  Most newer audio cards, for 
example, feature TOSlink digital optical output for high-quality sound 
reproduction, and even the latest crop of motherboards with integrated 
audio provide at least coax (and often optical) digital output.  Since 
S/PDIF doesn't provide any content protection, Vista requires that it be 
disabled when playing protected content.  In other words if you've 
invested a pile of money into a high-end audio setup fed from a digital 
output, you won't be able to use it with protected content.  Similarly, 
component (YPbPr) video will be disabled by Vista's content protection, 
so the same applies to a high-end video setup fed from component video.

Indirect Disabling of Functionality

As well as overt disabling of functionality, there's also covert 
disabling of functionality.  For example PC voice communications rely on 
automatic echo cancellation (AEC) in order to work.  AEC requires 
feeding back a sample of the audio mix into the echo cancellation 
subsystem, but with Vista's content protection this isn't permitted any 
more because this might allow access to premium content.  What is 
permitted is a highly-degraded form of feedback that might possibly 
still sort-of be enough for some sort of minimal echo cancellation 

The requirement to disable audio and video output plays havoc with 
standard system operations, because the security policy used is a 
so-called "system high" policy: The overall sensitivity level is that of 
the most sensitive data present in the system.  So the instant any audio 
derived from premium content appears on your system, signal degradation 
and disabling of outputs will occur.  What makes this particularly 
entertaining is the fact that the downgrading/disabling is dynamic, so 
if the premium-content signal is intermittent or varies (for example 
music that fades out), various outputs and output quality will fade in 
and out, or turn on and off, in sync.  Normally this behaviour would be 
a trigger for reinstalling device drivers or even a warranty return of 
the affected hardware, but in this case it's just a signal that 
everything is functioning as intended.

Decreased Playback Quality

Alongside the all-or-nothing approach of disabling output, Vista 
requires that any interface that provides high-quality output degrade 
the signal quality that passes through it.  This is done through a 
"constrictor" that downgrades the signal to a much lower-quality one, 
then up-scales it again back to the original spec, but with a 
significant loss in quality.  So if you're using an expensive new LCD 
display fed from a high-quality DVI signal on your video card and 
there's protected content present, the picture you're going to see will 
be, as the spec puts it, "slightly fuzzy", a bit like a 10-year-old CRT 
monitor that you picked up for $2 at a yard sale [Note C].  In fact the 
spec specifically still allows for old VGA analog outputs, but even 
that's only because disallowing them would upset too many existing 
owners of analog monitors.  In the future even analog VGA output will 
probably have to be disabled.  The only thing that seems to be 
explicitly allowed is the extremely low-quality TV-out, provided that 
Macrovision is applied to it.

The same deliberate degrading of playback quality applies to audio, with 
the audio being downgraded to sound (from the spec) "fuzzy with less 
detail" [Note D].

Amusingly, the Vista content protection docs say that it'll be left to 
graphics chip manufacturers to differentiate their product based on 
(deliberately degraded) video quality.  This seems a bit like breaking 
the legs of Olympic athletes and then rating them based on how fast they 
can hobble on crutches.

Beyond the obvious playback-quality implications of deliberately 
degraded output, this measure can have serious repercussions in 
applications where high-quality reproduction of content is vital.  For 
example the field of medical imaging either bans outright or strongly 
frowns on any form of lossy compression because artifacts introduced by 
the compression process can cause mis-diagnoses and in extreme cases 
even become life-threatening.  Consider a medical IT worker who's using 
a medical imaging PC while listening to audio/video played back by the 
computer (the CDROM drives installed in workplace PCs inevitably spend 
most of their working lives playing music or MP3 CDs to drown out 
workplace noise).  If there's any premium content present in there, the 
image will be subtly altered by Vista's content protection, potentially 
creating exactly the life-threatening situation that the medical 
industry has worked so hard to avoid.  The scary thing is that there's 
no easy way around this - Vista will silently modify displayed content 
under certain (almost impossible-to-predict in advance) situations 
discernable only to Vista's built-in content-protection subsystem 
[Note E].

Elimination of Open-source Hardware Support

In order to prevent the creation of hardware emulators of protected 
output devices, Vista requires a Hardware Functionality Scan (HFS) that 
can be used to uniquely fingerprint a hardware device to ensure that 
it's (probably) genuine.  In order to do this, the driver on the host PC 
performs an operation in the hardware (for example rendering 3D content 
in a graphics card) that produces a result that's unique to that device 

In order for this to work, the spec requires that the operational 
details of the device be kept confidential.  Obviously anyone who knows 
enough about the workings of a device to operate it and to write a 
third-party driver for it (for example one for an open-source OS, or in 
general just any non-Windows OS) will also know enough to fake the HFS 
process.  The only way to protect the HFS process therefore is to not 
release any technical details on the device beyond a minimum required 
for web site reviews and comparison with other products.

Elimination of Unified Drivers

The HFS process has another cost involved with it.  Most hardware 
vendors have (thankfully) moved to unified driver models instead of the 
plethora of individual drivers that abounded some years ago.  Since HFS 
requires unique identification and handling of not just each device type 
(for example each graphics chip) but each variant of each device type 
(for example each stepping of each graphics chip) to handle the 
situation where a problem is found with one variation of a device, it's 
no longer possible to create one-size-fits-all drivers for an entire 
range of devices like the current Catalyst/Detonator/ForceWare drivers.  
Every little variation of every device type out there must now be 
individually accommodated in custom code in order for the HFS process to 
be fully effective.

If a graphics chip is integrated directly into the motherboard and 
there's no easy access to the device bus then the need for bus 
encryption (see "Unnecessary CPU Resource Consumption" below) is 
removed.  Because the encryption requirement is so onerous, it's quite 
possible that this means of providing graphics capabilities will 
suddenly become more popular after the release of Vista.  However, this 
leads to a problem: It's no longer possible to tell if a graphics chip 
is situated on a plug-in card or attached to the motherboard, since as 
far as the system is concerned they're both just devices sitting on the 
AGP/PCIe bus.  The solution to this problem is to make the two 
deliberately incompatible, so that HFS can detect a chip on a plug-in 
card vs. one on the motherboard.  Again, this does nothing more than 
increase costs and driver complexity.

Further problems occur with audio drivers.  To the system, HDMI audio 
looks like S/PDIF, a deliberate design decision to make handling of 
drivers easier. In order to provide the ability to disable output, it's 
necessary to make HDMI codecs deliberately incompatible with S/PDIF 
codecs, despite the fact that they were specifically designed to appear 
identical in order to ease driver support and reduce development costs.

Denial-of-Service via Driver Revocation

Once a weakness is found in a particular driver or device, that driver 
will have its signature revoked by Microsoft, which means that it will 
cease to function (details on this are a bit vague here, presumably some 
minimum functionality like generic 640x480 VGA support will still be 
available in order for the system to boot).  This means that a report of 
a compromise of a particular driver or device will cause all support for 
that device worldwide to be turned off until a fix can be found.  
Again, details are sketchy, but if it's a device problem then presumably 
the device turns into a paperweight once it's revoked.  If it's an older 
device for which the vendor isn't interested in rewriting their drivers 
(and in the fast-moving hardware market most devices enter "legacy" 
status within a year of two of their replacement models becoming 
available), all devices of that type worldwide become permanently 

An example of this might be nVidia TNT2 video cards, which are still 
very widely deployed in business environments where they're all you need 
to run Word or Outlook or Excel (or, for that matter, pretty much any 
non-gaming application).  However, the drivers for these cards haven't 
been updated for quite some time for exactly that reason: You don't need 
to latest drivers for them because they're not useful with current games 
any more (if you go to the nVidia site and try and install any recent 
drivers, the installer will tell you to go back and download much older 
drivers instead).  If a TNT2 device were found to be leaking content, it 
seems unlikely that nVidia would be interested in reviving drivers that 
it hasn't touched for several years.

The threat of driver revocation is the ultimate nuclear option, the 
crack of the commissars' pistols reminding the faithful of their duty 
[Note F].  The exact details of the hammer that vendors will be hit with 
is buried in confidential licensing agreements, but I've heard mention 
of multi-million dollar fines and embargoes on further shipment of 
devices alongside the driver revocation mentioned above.

This revocation can have unforeseen carry-on costs.  Windows' 
anti-piracy component, WGA, is tied to system hardware components.  
You're allowed a small number of system hardware changes after which you 
need to renew your Windows license (the exact details of what you can 
and can't get away with changing has been the subject of much debate).  
If a particular piece of hardware is deactivated (even just temporarily 
while waiting for an updated driver to work around a content leak) and 
you swap in a different video card or sound card to avoid the problem, 
you risk triggering Windows' anti-piracy measures, landing you in even 
more hot water.  If you're forced to swap out a major system component 
like a motherboard, you've instantly failed WGA validation. Revocation 
of any kind of motherboard-integrated device (practically every 
motherboard has some form of onboard audio, and all of the cheaper ones 
have integrated video) would appear to have a serious negative 
interaction with Windows' anti-piracy measures [Note G].

Decreased System Reliability

  "Drivers must be extra-robust.  Requires additional driver development 
  to isolate and protect sensitive code paths" -- ATI.

Vista's content protection requires that devices (hardware and software 
drivers) set so-called "tilt bits" if they detect anything unusual.  
For example if there are unusual voltage fluctuations, maybe some jitter 
on bus signals, a slightly funny return code from a function call, a 
device register that doesn't contain quite the value that was expected, 
or anything similar, a tilt bit gets set.  Such occurrences aren't too 
uncommon in a typical computer (for example starting up or plugging in a 
bus-powered device may cause a small glitch in power supply voltages, or 
drivers may not quite manage device state as precisely as they think).  
Previously this was no problem - the system was designed with a bit of 
resilience, and things will function as normal.  In other words small 
variances in performance are a normal part of system functioning. 
Furthermore, the degree of variance can differ widely across systems, 
with some handling large changes in system parameters and others only 
small ones.  One very obvious way to observe this is what happens when a 
bunch of PCs get hit by a momentary power outage.  Effects will vary 
from powering down, to various types of crash, to nothing at all, all 
triggered by exactly the same external event.

With the introduction of tilt bits, all of this designed-in resilience 
is gone.  Every little (normally unnoticeable) glitch is suddenly 
surfaced because it could be a sign of a hack attack.  The effect that 
this will have on system reliability should require no further 

Content-protection "features" like tilt bits also have worrying 
denial-of- service (DoS) implications.  It's probably a good thing that 
modern malware is created by programmers with the commercial interests 
of the phishing and spam industries in mind rather than just creating as 
much havoc as possible.  With the number of easily-accessible grenade 
pins that Vista's content protection provides, any piece of malware that 
decides to pull a few of them will cause considerable damage.  The 
homeland security implications of this seem quite serious, since a tiny, 
easily-hidden piece of malware would be enough to render a machine 
unusable, while the very nature of Vista's content protection would make 
it almost impossible to determine why the denial-of-service is 
occurring.  Furthermore, the malware authors, who are taking advantage 
of "content-protection" features, would be protected by the DMCA against 
any attempts to reverse-engineer or disable the content-protection 
"features" that they're abusing.

Even without deliberate abuse by malware, the homeland security 
implications of an external agent being empowered to turn off your IT 
infrastructure in response to a content leak discovered in some chipset 
that you coincidentally happen to be using is a serious concern for 
potential Vista users.  Non-US governments are already nervous enough 
about using a US-supplied operating system without having this remote 
DoS capability built into the operating system.  And like the 
medical-image-degradation issue, you won't find out about this until 
it's too late, turning Vista PCs into ticking time bombs if the 
revocation functionality is ever employed.

Increased Hardware Costs

  "Cannot go to market until it works to specification... potentially 
  more respins of hardware" -- ATI.

  "This increases motherboard design costs, increases lead times, and 
  reduces OEM configuration flexibility.  This cost is passed on to 
  purchasers of multimedia PCs and may delay availability of 
  high-performance platforms" -- ATI.

Vista includes various requirements for "robustness" in which the 
content industry, through "hardware robustness rules", dictates design 
requirements to hardware manufacturers.  For example, only certain 
layouts of a board are allowed in order to make it harder for outsiders 
to access parts of the board. Possibly for the first time ever, computer 
design is being dictated not by electronic design rules, physical layout 
requirements, and thermal issues, but by the wishes of the content 
industry. Apart from the massive headache that this poses to device 
manufacturers, it also imposes additional increased costs beyond the 
ones incurred simply by having to lay out board designs in a suboptimal 
manner.  Video card manufacturers typically produce a one-size- fits-all 
design (often a minimally-altered copy of the chipset vendor's reference 
design), and then populate different classes and price levels of cards 
in different ways.  For example a low-end card will have low-cost, 
minimal or absent TV-out encoders, DVI circuitry, RAMDACs, and various 
other add-ons used to differentiate budget from premium video cards. You 
can see this on the cheaper cards by observing the unpopulated bond pads 
on circuit boards, and gamers and the like will be familiar with 
cut-a-trace/resolder-a- resistor sidegrades of video cards. Vista's 
content-protection requirements eliminate this one-size-fits-all design, 
banning the use of separate TV-out encoders, DVI circuitry, RAMDACs, and 
other discretionary add-ons.  Everything has to be custom-designed and 
laid out so that there are no unnecessary accessible signal links on the 
board.  This means that a low-cost card isn't just a high-cost card with 
components omitted, and conversely a high-cost card isn't just a 
low-cost card with additional discretionary components added, each one 
has to be a completely custom design created to ensure that no signal on 
the board is accessible.

This extends beyond simple board design all the way down to chip design. 
Instead of adding an external DVI chip, it now has to be integrated into 
the graphics chip, along with any other functionality normally supplied 
by an external chip.  So instead of varying video card cost based on 
optional components, the chipset vendor now has to integrate everything 
into a one- size-fits-all premium-featured graphics chip, even if all 
the user wants is a budget card for their kid's PC.

Increased Cost due to Requirement to License Unnecessary Third-party IP

  "We've taken on more legal costs in copyright protection in the last 
  six to eight months than we have in any previous engagement.  Each 
  legal contract sets a new precedent, and each new one builds on the 
  previous one" -- ATI.

Protecting all of this precious premium content requires a lot of 
additional technology.  Unfortunately much of this is owned by third 
parties and requires additional licensing.  For example HDCP for HDMI is 
owned by Intel, so in order to send a signal over HDMI you have to pay 
royalties to Intel, even though you could do exactly the same thing for 
free over DVI.  Similarly, since even AES-128 on a modern CPU isn't fast 
enough to encrypt high-bandwidth content, companies are required to 
license the Intel-owned Cascaded Cipher, an AES-128-based transform 
that's designed to offer a generally similar level of security but with 
less processing overhead.

The need to obtain unnecessary technology licenses extends beyond basic 
hardware IP.  In order to demonstrate their commitment to the cause, 
Microsoft have recommended as part of their "robustness rules" that 
vendors license third-party code obfuscation tools to provide virus-like 
stealth capabilities for their device drivers in order to make it 
difficult to interfere with their operations or reverse-engineer them.  
Vendors like Cloakware and Arxan have actually added "robustness 
solutions" web pages to their sites in anticipation of this lucrative 
market.  This must be a nightmare for device vendors, for whom it's 
already enough of a task getting fully functional drivers deployed 
without having to deal with adding stealth-virus-like technology on top 
of the basic driver functionality.

Unnecessary CPU Resource Consumption

  "Since [encryption] uses CPU cycles, an OEM may have to bump the speed 
  grade on the CPU to maintain equivalent multimedia performance.  This 
  cost is passed on to purchasers of multimedia PCs" -- ATI.

In order to prevent tampering with in-system communications, all 
communication flows have to be encrypted and/or authenticated.  For 
example content to video cards has to be encrypted with AES-128.  This 
requirement for cryptography extends beyond basic content encryption to 
encompass not just data flowing over various buses but also command and 
control data flowing between software components.  For example 
communications between user-mode and kernel-mode components are 
authenticated with OMAC message authentication-code tags, at 
considerable cost to both ends of the connection.

In order to prevent active attacks, device drivers are required to poll 
the underlying hardware every 30ms to ensure that everything appears 
kosher.  This means that even with nothing else happening in the system, 
a mass of assorted drivers has to wake up thirty times a second just to 
ensure that... nothing continues to happen.  In addition to this 
polling, further device-specific polling is also done, for example Vista 
polls video devices on each video frame displayed in order to check that 
all of the grenade pins (tilt bits) are still as they should be 
[Note H].

On-board graphics create an additional problem in that blocks of 
precious content will end up stored in system memory, from where they 
could be paged to disk.  In order to avoid this, Vista tags such pages 
with a special protection bit indicating that they need to be encrypted 
before being paged out and decrypted again after being paged in.  Vista 
doesn't provide any other pagefile encryption, and will quite happily 
page banking PINs, credit card details, private, personal data, and 
other sensitive information, in plaintext.  The content-protection 
requirements make it fairly clear that in Microsoft's eyes a frame of 
premium content is worth more than (say) a user's medical records or 
their banking PIN [Note I].

In addition to the CPU costs, the desire to render data inaccessible at 
any level means that video decompression can't be done in the CPU any 
more, since there isn't sufficient CPU power available to both 
decompress the video and encrypt the resulting uncompressed data stream 
to the video card.  As a result, much of the decompression has to be 
integrated into the graphics chip. At a minimum this includes IDCT, MPEG 
motion compensation, and the Windows Media VC-1 codec (which is also 
DCT-based, so support via an IDCT core is fairly easy).  As a corollary 
to the "Increased Hardware Costs" problem above, this means that you 
can't ship a low-end graphics chip without video codec support any more.

The inability to perform decoding in software also means that any 
premium- content compression scheme not supported by the graphics 
hardware can't be implemented.  If things like the Ogg video codec ever 
eventuate and get used for premium content, they had better be done 
using something like Windows Media VC-1 or they'll be a non-starter 
under Vista or Vista-approved hardware. This is particularly troubling 
for the high-quality digital cinema (D-Cinema) specification, which uses 
Motion JPEG2000 (MJ2K) because standard MPEG and equivalents don't 
provide sufficient image quality.  Since JPEG2000 uses wavelet-based 
compression rather than MPEG's DCT-based compression, and wavelet-based 
compression isn't on the hardware codec list, it's not possible to play 
back D-Cinema premium content (the moribund Ogg Tarkin codec also used 
wavelet-based compression).  Because *all* D-Cinema content will 
(presumably) be premium content, the result is no playback at all until 
the hardware support appears in PCs at some indeterminate point in the 
future.  Compare this to the situation with MPEG video, where early 
software codecs like the XingMPEG en/decoder practically created the 
market for PC video.  Today, thanks to Vista's content protection, the 
opening up of new markets in this manner would be impossible.

The high-end graphics and audio market are dominated entirely by gamers, 
who will do anything to gain the tiniest bit of extra performance, like 
buying Bigfoot Networks' $250 "Killer NIC" ethernet card in the hope 
that it'll help reduce their network latency by a few milliseconds.  
These are people buying $500-$1000 graphics and sound cards for which 
one single sale brings the device vendors more than the few cents they 
get from the video/audio portion of an entire roomful of 
integrated-graphics-and-sound PCs.  I wonder how this market segment 
will react to knowing that their top-of-the-line hardware is being 
hamstrung by all of the content-protection "features" that Vista hogties 
it with?

Unnecessary Device Resource Consumption

  "Compliance rules require [content] to be encrypted.  This requires 
  additional encryption/decryption logic thus adding to VPU costs.  
  This cost is passed on to all consumers" -- ATI.

As part of the bus-protection scheme, devices are required to implement 
AES-128 encryption in order to receive content from Vista.  This has to 
be done via a hardware decryption engine on the graphics chip, which 
would typically be implemented by throwing away a rendering pipeline or 
two to make room for the AES engine.

Establishing the AES key with the device hardware requires further 
cryptographic overhead, in this case a 2048-bit Diffie-Hellman key 
exchange. In programmable devices this can be done (with considerable 
effort) in the device (for example in programmable shader hardware), or 
more simply by throwing out a few more rendering pipelines and 
implementing a public-key- cryptography engine in the freed-up space.

Needless to say, the need to develop, test, and integrate encryption 
engines into audio/video devices will only add to their cost, as covered 
in "Increased Hardware Costs" above, and the fact that their losing 
precious performance in order to accommodate Vista's content protection 
will make gamers less than happy.

Final Thoughts

  "No amount of coordination will be successful unless it's designed 
  with the needs of the customer in mind.  Microsoft believes that a 
  good user experience is a requirement for adoption" -- Microsoft.

  "The PC industry is committed to providing content protection on the 
  PC, but nothing comes for free.  These costs are passed on to the 
  consumer" -- ATI.

At the end of all this, the question remains: Why is Microsoft going to 
this much trouble?  Ask most people what they picture when you use the 
term "premium media player" and they'll respond with "A PVR" or "A DVD 
player" and not "A Windows PC".  So why go to this much effort to try 
and turn the PC into something that it's not?

In July 2006, Cory Doctorow published an analysis of the 
anti-competitive nature of Apple's iTunes copy-restriction system 
("Apple's Copy Protection Isn't Just Bad For Consumers, It's Bad For 
Business", Cory Doctorow, Information Week, 31 July 2006).  The only 
reason I can imagine why Microsoft would put its programmers, device 
vendors, third-party developers, and ultimately its customers, through 
this much pain is because once this copy protection is entrenched, 
Microsoft will completely own the distribution channel.  In the same way 
that Apple has managed to acquire a monopolistic lock-in on their music 
distribution channel (an example being the Motorola ROKR fiasco, which 
was so crippled by Apple-imposed restrictions that it was dead the 
moment it appeared), so Microsoft will totally control the premium- 
content distribution channel.  Not only will they be able to lock out 
any competitors, but because they will then represent the only available 
distribution channel they'll be able to dictate terms back to the 
content providers whose needs they are nominally serving in the same way 
that Apple has already dictated terms back to the music industry: Play 
by Apple's rules, or we won't carry your content. The result will be a 
technologically enforced monopoly that makes their current de-facto 
Windows monopoly seem like a velvet glove in comparison.

Overall, Vista's content-protection functionality seems like an 
astonishingly short-sighted piece of engineering, concentrating entirely 
on content protection with no consideration given to the enormous 
repercussions of the measures employed.  It's something like the PC 
equivalent of the (hastily dropped) proposal mooted in Europe to put 
RFID tags into high-value banknotes as an anti-counterfeiting measure, 
completely ignoring the fact that the major users of this technology 
would end up being criminals who would use it to remotely identify the 
most lucrative robbery targets.

The worst thing about all of this is that there's no escape.  Hardware 
manufacturers will have to drink the kool-aid (and the reference to mass 
suicide here is deliberate [Note J]) in order to work with Vista: "There 
is no requirement to sign the [content-protection] license; but without 
a certificate, no premium content will be passed to the driver".  Of 
course as a device manufacturer you can choose to opt out, if you don't 
mind your device only ever being able to display low-quality, fuzzy, 
blurry video and audio when premium content is present, while your 
competitors don't have this (artificially-created) problem.

As a user, there is simply no escape.  Whether you use Windows Vista, 
Windows XP, Windows 95, Linux, FreeBSD, OS X, Solaris (on x86), or 
almost any other OS, Windows content protection will make your hardware 
more expensive, less reliable, more difficult to program for, more 
difficult to support, more vulnerable to hostile code, and with more 
compatibility problems.  Because Windows dominates the market and device 
vendors are unlikely to design and manufacture two different versions of 
their products, non-Windows users will be paying for Windows Vista 
content-protection measures in products even if they never run Windows 
on them.

Here's an offer to Microsoft: If we, the consumers, promise to never, 
ever, ever buy a single HD-DVD or Blu-Ray disc containing any precious 
premium content [Note K], will you in exchange withhold this poison from 
the computer industry?  Please?


This document was put together with input from various sources, 
including a number that requested that I keep their contributions 
anonymous (in some cases I've simplified or rewritten some details to 
ensure that the original, potentially traceable wording of non-public 
requirements docs isn't used). Because it wasn't always possible to go 
back to the sources and verify exact details, it's possible that there 
may be some inaccuracies present, which I'm sure I'll hear about fairly 
quickly.  No doubt Microsoft (who won't want a view of Vista as being 
broken by design to take root) will also provide their spin on the 

In addition to the material present here, I'd be interested in getting 
further input both from people at Microsoft involved in implementing the 
content protection measures and from device vendors who are required to 
implement the hardware and driver software measures.  I know from the 
Microsoft sources that contributed that many of them care deeply about 
providing the best possible audio/video user experience for Vista users 
and are quite distressed about having to spend time implementing large 
amounts of anti-functionality when it's already hard enough to get 
things running smoothly without the intentional crippling.  I'm always 
open to further input, and will keep all contributions confidential 
unless you give me permission to repeat something. If you want to 
encrypt things, my PGP key is linked from my home page, 

(In case the above hints aren't obvious enough, if you work for nVidia, 
ATI, VIA, SiS, Intel, ..., I'd *really* like to get your comments on how 
all of this is affecting you).


Because this writeup started out as a private discussion in email, a 
number of the sources used were non-public.  The best public sources 
that I know of are:

"Output Content Protection and Windows Vista",, from 

"Windows Longhorn Output Content Protection",, 
from WinHEC.

"How to Implement Windows Vista Content Output Protection",, 
from WinHEC.

"Protected Media Path and Driver Interoperability Requirements",, 
from WinHEC.

An excellent analysis from one of the hardware vendors involved in this 
comes from ATI, in the form of "Digital Media Content Protection",, 
from WinHEC.  This points out (in the form of PowerPoint bullet-points) 
the manifold problems associated with Vista's content-protection 
measures, with repeated mention of increased development costs, degraded 
performance and the phrase "increased costs passed on to consumers" 
pervading the entire presentation like a mantra.

(Note that the cryptography requirements have changed since some of the 
information above was published.  SHA-1 has been deprecated in favour of 
SHA-256 and SHA-512, and public keys seem to be uniformly set at 2048 
bits in place of the mixture of 1024 bits and 2048 bits mentioned in the 

In addition there have been quite a few writeups on this (although not 
going into as much detail as this document) in magazines both online and 
in print, one example being PC World's feature article "Will your PC run 
Windows Vista?",, which 
covers this in the appropriately-titled section "Multimedia in chains".  
Audience reactions at WinHEC are covered in "Longhorn: tough trail to PC 
digital media" published in EE Times 
unfortunately you need to be a subscriber to read this but you may be 
able to find accessible cached copies using your favourite search 

Use, Modification, and Redistribution

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as long as they credit you for the original creation.  This is the most 
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your works".


Note A: This document uses "cost" in the sense of "penalty", "damage", 
"harm", "injury" and "loss" rather than the more financial "expense", 
"outlay", and "price".  A full financial analysis would require a 
top-to-bottom internal audit of the design, development, production, 
distribution, support, and legal costs for each vendor involved, 
something for which even the vendors themselves would have difficulty 
producing a precise figure.

Note B: I'll make a prediction at this point that, given that it's 
trying to do the impossible, the Vista content protection will take less 
than a day to bypass if the bypass mechanism is something like a driver 
bug or a simple security hole that applies only to one piece of code 
(and can therefore be quickly patched), and less than a week to 
comprehensively bypass in a driver/hardware-independent manner.  This 
doesn't mean it'll be broken the day or week that it appears, but simply 
that once a sufficiently skilled attacker is motivated to bypass the 
protection, it'll take them less than a day or a week to do so.

Note C: As an example of an experience that's likely to become 
commonplace once more "premium content" is rolled out, Roger Strong 
reports from Canada that "I've just had my first experience with HD 
content being blocked.  I purchased an HP Media Center PC with a 
built-in HD DVD player, together with a 24" 'high definition' 1920 x 
1200 HP flat panel display (HP LP2465).  They even included an HD movie, 
'The Bourne Supremacy'.  Sure enough, the movie won't play because while 
the video card supports HDCP content protection, the monitor doesn't.  
(It plays if I connect an old 14" VGA CRT using a DVI-to-VGA 

Note D: The question of how content producers other than the major 
studios who can afford expensive custom equipment are supposed to create 
and manipulate high-definition content has been raised by a number of 
readers.  For example one contributor who works with people in the 
content industry comments that "I have seen [smaller content producers] 
going from just recording weddings and the like, to ones that have gone 
all the way to make a full featured movie. They have gone through 
problems like where to edit HD material, which cameras to use, which 
format, etc.  Their decisions have been based on availability of 
equipment to make their projects, not really costs".  It has been 
suggested that the large content producers are quite happy with this 
situation, since it prevents any competition from more innovative, 
creative, and agile newcomers.

Note E: Philip Dorrell has a neat cartoon that illustrates this problem 

Note F: I see some impressive class-action suits to follow if this 
revocation mechanism is ever applied.  Perhaps Microsoft or the content 
providers will buy everyone who owns a device that inadvertently leaks 
content and is then disabled by the revocation process replacement 
hardware for their system. Some contributors have commented that they 
can't see the revocation system ever being used because the consumer 
backlash would be too enormous, but then the legal backlash from not 
going ahead could be equally extreme.  For anyone who's read "Guns of 
August", the situation seems a bit like pre-WWI Europe with people 
sitting on step 1 of enormously complex battle plans that can't be 
backed out of once triggered, no matter how obvious it is that going 
ahead with them is a bad idea.  Driver revocation is a lose/lose 
situation for Microsoft, they're in for some serious pain whether they 
do or they don't. Their lawyers must have been asleep when they let 
themselves get painted into this particular corner - the first time a 
revocation takes out a hospital, foreign government department, air 
traffic control system, or whatever, they've guaranteed themselves 
first-person involvement in court proceedings for the rest of their 
natural lives.

An entirely different DoS problem that applies more to HDMI-enabled 
devices in general has already surfaced in the form of, uhh, "DVI 
amplifiers", which take as input an HDMI signal and output a DVI signal, 
amplifying it in the process. Oh, and as a side-effect they just happen 
to remove the HDCP protection. These devices are relatively simple to 
design and build using off-the-shelf HDMI chips (I know of hardware 
hackers who have built their own protection- strippers using chip 
samples obtained from chip vendors.  If you have the right credentials 
you can even get hardware evaluation boards designed for testing and 
development that do this sort of thing).

Now assume that the "DVI amplifier" manufacturer buys a truckload of 
HDMI chips (they'll want to get as many as they can in one go because 
they probably won't be able to go back and buy more when the chip vendor 
discovers what they're being used for).  Since this is a rogue device, 
it can be revoked... along with hundreds of thousands or even millions 
of other consumer devices that use the same chip.  Engadget have a good 
overview of this scenario at 

Note G: Exactly what will happen if a motherboard contains unused 
onboard audio capabilities and an additional sound card alongside it, 
and the motherboard drivers are revoked, is unknown.  Windows can't tell 
that there's nothing connected to the onboard audio because the user 
prefers to use their expensive M-Audio Revolution 7.1 Surround Sound 
card instead, so it'll probably have to revoke the motherboard drivers 
even though they're not used for anything.  Since virtually all 
motherboards contain onboard audio, this could prove quite problematic.

Note H: We already have multiple reports from Vista reviewers of 
playback problems with video and audio content, with video frames 
dropped and audio stuttering even on high-end systems.  Time will tell 
whether this problem is due to immature drivers or has been caused by 
the overhead imposed by Vista's content protection mechanisms 
interfering with playback.

Note I: The Enterprise and Ultimate editions of Vista do feature this 
type of encryption, but the features of these high-end versions will 
never get into the hands of typical users.  In addition it's an 
all-or-nothing encryption where (to quote Microsoft) "all user and 
system files are encrypted" when what really counts is swap-file 
encryption, since that contains the contents of sensitive in-memory 
data.  The OpenBSD approach of generating a random swap- file encryption 
key at boot time and encrypting any memory data that gets paged to disk 
is the correct way to handle this.

Note J: The "kool-aid" reference may be slightly unfamiliar to non-US 
readers, it's a reference to the 1978 Jonestown mass-suicide in which 
Jim Jones' followers drank Flavor Aid laced with poison in order to 
demonstrate their dedication to the cause.  In popular usage the term 
"kool-aid" is substituted for Flavor Aid because it has more brand 
recognition.  There's also an earlier, less well-known link to fruit 
juice laced with LSD, I'll avoid the obvious comment about that and some 
of the thinking behind Vista's content protection.

Note K: If I do ever want to play back premium content, I'll wait a few 
years and then buy a $50 Chinese-made set-top player to do it, not a 
$1000 Windows PC.  It's somewhat bizarre that I have to go to Communist 
China in order to find vendors who actually understand the consumer's 

A reductio ad absurdum solution to the "premium-content problem", 
proposed by a Slashdot reader, is to add support to Windows Vista for a 
black-box hardware component that accepts as input encrypted compressed 
premium content and produces as output encrypted (or otherwise 
protected) decoded premium content. In other words, move the entire mass 
of hardware, driver, and software protection into a dedicated black box 
that's only used in media PCs where it's (arguably) required.

Now compare this add-on black box to the canonical Chinese-made $50 
media player.  Why would anyone buy the black box (which will almost 
certainly cost more than $50) when they can buy a complete dedicated 
media player that does the same thing and more?

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