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Windows 7 And D R M

Guest Reimar

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Windows 7s draconian DRM?

Once again, we see fanciful claims about ludicrous DRM schemes in the new Windows operating system, but a closer look suggests that Windows isn't to blame after all. Most users, in fact, won't even notice Windows 7's DRM.

The popular technology website Slashdot plumbed new depths on Tuesday with a post about the terrible DRM situation in Windows 7. Proving that some sites will publish just about anything as long as it's anti-Microsoft, the post enumerated the DRM restrictions that Windows 7 apparently inflicts on the honest and upstanding computer user.

What was claimed? Well, some guy decided that he wanted to crack his (legally purchased, no doubt) copy of Photoshop on his Windows 7 install. Windows 7 then sprung into life to break his crack, defend Photoshop's virtue against his unwelcome advances, protect a load of random DLLs from deletion, and open up the firewall so that Adobe could see that he was up to no good. Yup yup. To add insult to injury, Windows 7 then crippled the dude's sound card. Or something.

As is so often the case with this kind of story, the truth is more prosaic. The most likely reason that Photoshop broke is that either the crack didn't work or was the wrong version. Windows doesn't actually know what Photoshop is—it's just another application, no different from any other—and the operating system certainly doesn't contain special programming to detect and destroy Photoshop cracks.

Nor, for that matter, did Windows 7 magically open up the firewall. The Photoshop installer did that. And it only had permission to do that because the person installing the software gave it Administrator privileges so that it had access to the firewall configuration.

And the audio capabilities? They're largely determined by the sound drivers that are installed. The ones that ship on-disc are quite limited and don't offer any of the fancy sound processing or multiple outputs that custom drivers provide, but they do work. The particular complaint here is that Windows 7 lacks a "Stereo Mix" audio input. The "Stereo Mix" input allows the output of the sound card to be recorded directly, which is useful for capturing program output. But the reason there's no Stereo Mix is that the drivers the complainant was using doesn't support them. Third-party/custom drivers may continue to offer Stereo Mix, What-U-Hear, or any other equivalent; it's just the built-in ones that don't. They don't really do much at all, leaving scope for third parties to offer improvements on the base capabilities of the OS.

Windows 7's DRM

The more interesting question here is what DRM does Windows 7 have? Considering that Windows 7 is based on Windows Vista, it probably won't be altogether surprising to learn that Windows 7's DRM is more or less the same as Vista's. In practice, the most obvious restrictions—the ones most likely to affect people—are the ones protecting Windows itself: Product Activation and Windows Genuine Advantage. Neither of these are in any sense new, and in practice the majority of (legal) users will barely know that they exist.

Though activation caused a ruckus when XP was launched (with many fearing that it would all but end their ability to use their PCs in the way they wanted), in practice its restrictions have been quite inoffensive. Vista had its own DRM brouhaha, but this time the concern was not over the DRM protecting the operating system itself, but rather the DRM for protecting copyrighted sound and video.

It's true that Vista expanded on these capabilities. The Protected Video Path—designed to provide a secure way of playing back Blu-ray and HD DVD video—was new to Vista. When PVP is active, drivers must ensure that they keep the video safe. In particular, this means disabling high-resolution unencrypted outputs lest they be used to dump the decrypted, decoded video.

Particular complaints have been made about the polling that this requires; digital outputs must be checked every 30ms and analog ones every 150ms to ensure that no prohibited devices are attached. Although the system demands from this polling are negligible, it has nonetheless been blamed for Vista's relatively high system requirements.

On top of PVP, Vista includes a secure audio path called Protected User Mode Audio, or PUMA, which replaces XP's Secure Audio Path. The purpose of this is much the same as PVP; it is there to protect audio from being recorded or otherwise captured.

Though there was plenty of outcry over PUMA and PVP prior to Vista's launch, the story is once again a familiar one: most people don't notice. Little or no media actually demands the use of the protected paths, so on most users' systems, Windows never invokes them. Play back unprotected media on a Vista machine and the DRM subsystems simply don't get used.

All these Vista DRM features are found in Windows 7. But just as with Vista before it, the vast majority of users will never see the DRM in any practical sense; the features are there just in case Hollywood decides to make use of them. The overblown, unrealistic, and just plain made up horrors of DRM in Windows Vista never came to pass (in spite of the huge publicity that the Gutmann diatribe received), and so it will be with Windows 7.

When it comes to bashing Microsoft, it seems that any old canard will do; facts are strictly optional.


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