AACS and planned obsolescence

Customers generally don’t like planned obsolescence, although we’ve still learned to see this as a normal part of most product life-cycle. There are many ways to plan obsolescence, but hardly any goes as far as the Blu-ray format is pushing it to obsolete your old HD TV. If you have a Blu-ray player connecting to older HD video equipment, you might start to lose its HD capability some time next year (depending on the goodwill of the content distributors).

The “problem” lies with AACS, the mandatory digital right management system built into every Blu-ray player, which includes a plethora of ways to cripple the video signal so that you only get standard definition output. I quoted the word “problem” in the last sentence because, obviously, those who created AACS only see that as a feature, a feature aimed at preventing illegal copies (as if that will work!).

That “feature” obviously has a cost. Every manufacturer has to implement a decryption system to read the content of a Blu-ray disk. The decryption keys are tightly kept secret by the AACS licensing authority, which forces manufacturers to enter in an agreement where the licensing authority can dictate what each players must do and must not do.

As part of the enforced rules, Blu-ray players are required to obey the image constrains written on the disk. Image constraints can forbid the player from sending an HD-quality signal to any non-AACS-encrypted output. This means that if your HD TV is connected through component video out (YPbPr), or if your hardware isn’t able to negotiate a proper AACS-encrypted channel over HDMI for some reason, you won’t be able to see that disk in high definition.

The impact though this day has been mostly null, because disk manufacturer have been forbidden by AACS from including these strict image constrains, that is, until 2011.

So in 2011, owners of Blu-ray players will become part of a live experiment where some newly-released disks might or might not play in HD depending on the a decision from the disk producer combined with some unpredictable characteristics of their various pieces of equipment and the way they’re wired together. From a machiavellian point of view, I guess it’s going to be fun to watch if the content producer decide to go with it. From a consumer point of view, it’s a little scary.

There are many other situations where AACS mandates crippling the video quality or even completely prevent the disk from being read, but this one is probably the most important issue in the short term.


  • © 2003–2017 Michel Fortin.