Why “video” players, like the iPod, are crippled, and why Apple should be ashamed

So, we’re getting ready to head off on a vacation. My son says to me, “How can I load Hunt from Red October onto my iPod?”

“You can’t,” I reply. “Apple won’t let you.”

My son’s 30GB iPod with Video – the previous generation device – is a marvelous music player. But as a video player, it’s a tremendous disappointment. It’s not the technology that’s flawed – it’s attitude from Apple, Washington and Hollywood. Presumably, competing video players have the same intentionally crippling limitation.

When it comes to music, it’s easy to populate the iTunes software, and by extension, the iPod. (This applies equally to other music software and devices.) There are three ways you can proceed:

• You can load, one disc at a time, your CD-based music collection into the software, and from there onto the device. This is time-consuming, not just for the “ripping,” but also for organization. It’s something that I did a little bit at a time, over many months.

• The second way to put music onto the device is to purchase it in digital form, such as from the iTunes Store (which I won’t do) or from another legal source like Amazon.com (which I sometimes do).

• The third way is to obtain music illegally through peer-to-peer sharing networks (which I won’t do).

When it comes to movies, the first option is closed to you. Perhaps you already have an extensive DVD library; my family does, and it contains all my favorite movies – the ones that I’m most likely to want to watch on an iPod. If you have young kids, there are certain movies that your children want to see over and over again… and you already own them.

However, “thanks” to digital rights management paranoia, Apple and the other software companies do not permit you to insert a DVD into your Mac or Windows PC and “rip” the DVD into iTunes or any other commercial media-management application. Could they allow it? Sure. Will they? No way.

So, while there exist several shareware/freeware hacks that will let you painfully extract the audio and video from a DVD, transform then with the right codecs, and construct an MPEG4 video that can be loaded into iTunes and onto an iPod, they are indeed hacks. They’re simply not useful for the mass market.

The solution, says Apple is easy: Buy the movie in the proper format from the iTunes Store. In other words, they want you to buy the movie a second time. That, to me, is simply unacceptable.

I paid good money for Hunt for Red October (actually, $11.99 from Amazon.com) on DVD, which my son can watch in our home theatre, in his bedroom using his PlayStation 2 as a DVD player, and even on his MacBook notebook using its DVD-ROM drive. However, Apple won’t let him load the movie into iTunes, and so he can’t watch it on his Apple iPod with Video.

There’s no way I’m going to let my son spend another $9.99 to buy that same movie again from the iTunes Store – when all he’s wants it to watch it once on the iPod’s 2.5-inch screen on a flight to the East Coast.

What a rip-off. Apple hides behind Hollywood and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to cripple a video player so consumers can't watch the movies they've legally purchased.

Apple should be ashamed of itself.

Update 12/20: I responded to some comments in a separate post.


Kevin said...

It's not settled law that providing software to rip DVDs is legal; there are still legal cases pending. There is non-Apple software that does it, but those developers are fairly well "hidden". Don't you think Apple would love to do this, just like they did with music? It would instantly boost sales of AppleTV, and put pressure on studios to offer digital downloads. But if Apple was to do it, they would be instantly taken to court by the MPAA, an injunction would be immediately granted, and Apple would likely lose, and pay through the nose. What does that gain you? Higher priced products. I don't see why Apple should be ashamed.

I also don't understand why you refuse to buy DRM-free music from iTunes (yet buy from Amazon). The format it uses, AAC, is an open standard, part of MPEG-4, which is the MPEG replacement for MP3, and offers higher quality at the same encoding rate, or even quality at a lower encoding rate. In any case, more and more players are beginning to move to AAC.

It seems you believe the iTunes store is an effort by Apple to get you to buy a song or movie a second time. The labels and studios actually got this part partly right; Apple is selling digital downloads so there is content to make it easier for it to sell devices. Deeper analysis would show that Apple started download sales so as not to be beholden to and screwed by Microsoft's Windows Media formats, which Microsoft now doesn't offer for the Mac.

Tristan said...

As you mentioned in your post... It's more of a legal thing, than an iTunes / Apple thing.

I use a program called VisualHub, it works really well and it's pretty quick! This prgram WONT let you rip a DVD directly, but once you have a ripped copy on your HD, VisualHub does the rest!

I know piracy is what the publishers are afraid of, but really, if I buy a copy of a movie, then want to copy it to my PMP and or Network TV player (iPod & AppleTV) I should be allowed to! I ripped my entire DVD collection to allow my family to watch the movie on their TV or laptop... Yes, it took FOREVER, but it is worth it!

My collection is not shared with anyone else and all the data stays on my machine, yet what I am doing is still illegal?!? Why?

Ian said...

Sorry, Alan, you are badly misinformed and should correct your post. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it illegal to circumvent DRM, including CSS, which is used on pretty much every commercial DVD in existence.

So, Handbrake can get away with software for ripping DVDs, but a corporation with deep pockets like Apple would immediately get sued by the MPAA, and would probably be in breach of all the contracts it has signed that allow it to sell movies and TV shows on the iTunes stores.

Bottom line, it is actually ILLEGAL for Apple to do as you suggest, no matter how trivial it is at a technical level. If you want someone to be ashamed, you should point your fingers at the politicians who passed this travesty of a law, and the corporations that paid them to do it.

fog city dave said...

Your anger is misplaced. Apple would remove DRM from both music and movies in a New York minute if the labels would allow it. Direct your frustration where it belongs: the labels and studios. Apple is just about the only company fighting for consumers against the labels and studios in this battle.

Michael Wittmann said...


It can be done, though it's a bit time consuming.

Search MacUpdate and get 2 programs:


Use those to make mp4 versions of your movies. It takes a while (there's a lot of processing involved) but you can even get the movie down to reasonable size in the process. I've used it on some movies, just to test out for the day I get an iPhone or iTouch, but don't own an iPod with video, so it's kind of just a test case for me. I'm sure you'll find it valuable.


John said...

You are an idiot

Apple isn't 'hiding' behind the law.

It 'is' the law the studios don't let you copy DVDs.

Did you miss the notices when you play your DVD or do you have a comprehension problem

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Co-founder and editorial director of BZ Media, which publishes SD Times, the leading magazine for the software development industry. Founder of SPTechCon: The SharePoint Technology Conference, AnDevCon: The Android Developer Conference, and Big Data TechCon. Also president and principal analyst of Camden Associates, an IT consulting and analyst firm.