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We need it more than ever

by Mark Fleischmann

December 1999 -- Dear Santa ... may I have a new Divx this Yuletide season? OK, I know you gave me Divx last year and I hated it. But I loved hating it. I never had so much fun hating anything in my life.

Any human being with a capacity for love has an equally great capacity for loathing and they both need targets. You could hate people whose dogs defecate and urinate on the sidewalk, but they're your neighbors. Hating people close to you -- family members, friends, coworkers -- is always a mistake, since they'll just reflect it back in one way or another. Hating broader groups is self-impoverishing and tragic.

Divx served humanity by taking the heat off ethnic, religious, political, and sexual minorities. It made the world a better place, for awhile. We joined hands in a circle and hated together -- not each other, not ourselves, but ... a ... format ... invented ... by ... lawyers! How cool is that?

Joking aside

At first Divx didn't seem to be a good thing. It seemed like a bullet aimed at the heart of the newborn DVD-Video format, a spoiler format disguised as a "feature," an attempt to turn home entertainment into a pay-per-play electronic box office.

Given the choice of buying permission to watch DVDs for a limited time while Big Brother looked over our shoulders, versus the more conventional options of owning or renting them with no strings attached, videophiles voted overwhelmingly for the latter options -- 96.8 percent of us, according to an poll.

It wasn't as if we hadn't been through this before. Hollywood tried to outlaw VCR time-shifting but lost the Betamax Case in the Supreme Court. Its attempts to bully video rental stores met the same fate when the First Sale Doctrine survived court challenges. And its clumsy attempts at copy protection continue to plague videophiles.

Just last night I watched "Shine" on VHS and read a preface saying the rented tape was encoded with Macrovision copy protection. Since Macrovision works by sabotaging video control signals, I didn't need to be told -- the picture bending at the top of the screen made it painfully obvious.

Now comes word that Macrovision and partner TTR Technologies are developing new copy-protect schemes for both CD and DVD. They will find a ready-made market in the entertainment industry's self-lacerating paranoia.

Whose side are you on?

The manufacturers who designed the DVD-Video format did their best to consult with Hollywood at every step of the process, incorporating regional coding and other copy-protect features. Then, just as DVD was headed into its first holiday shopping season, Divx sailed through their windows like a Molotov cocktail. They felt betrayed.

However, it was great fun to watch the other manufacturers who adopted Divx hemming and hawing at press conferences. Um, we're, uh, doing Divx. Why, to placate Circuit City? Um, yes. Won't that anger consumers? Um, uh, ah, of course not. So when are you delivering the players? Um ... maybe sometime next year.

I was shocked the first time one of my colleagues referred to the consumer electronics industry as "our industry." Wasn't publishing "our industry"? Didn't we exist to serve our readers? Eventually I wised up and realized she was right.

And yet, when long-supine reporters started asking aggressive questions about Divx, suddenly the presence of the consumer -- conspicuous in its absence for so long -- was felt in press-conference rooms like an invigorating breath of fresh air. It gave us jaded journalists a miraculous chance to rediscover our ideals, evoking Bob Dylan's words from "My Back Pages": "I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now."

Voices heard

That was the coolest thing about the Divx debacle -- it brought out the consumerism in consumer electronics. A public long viewed as passive, capable only of kneejerk reactions to the latest format or feature hype, suddenly began exercising active judgment, wholly independent from the industry PR machine and the press.

The Internet seems to have played a key role in this suddenly groundswell of independent thought. We at are proud that the DVD folder on our message board has been a focal point for anti-Divx sentiment. (And if you'll forgive the shameless plug, it's still a good place to share tips with fellow DVD enthusiasts.) But other websites, forums, and newsgroups all helped form the tidal wave that swept through the industry.

I hope all this doesn't sound too condescending. Consumers make their own judgments every time they buy something. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Divx dramatized that collective judgment, throwing it into higher relief, so that no self-appointed expert in either the press or the industry could possibly miss it.

When Divx happened, consumers made their voices heard. I just hope the echoes don't die down too quickly.

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