Hey, Apple. DVD + iPod - Make It Happen. Here’s How.

Jed Bartlett would have abolished copyright by now. You know he would.Two good things happened this Easter weekend. One – I joined the gym. Two – I bought the West Wing complete boxed set. The West Wing is good because it’s intelligent, gripping, well-written, brilliantly acted television. The gym is good because it will probably stop me dying of a heart attack aged 35. If I can work out some way of combining these two awesome positive forces, it’ll probably improve my life in a whole lot of ways.

I don’t currently own a portable video player. Yeah, I know. Luddite freak. It’s ok. Point, stare, laugh if you must. What I do have is a cupboard full of things (ankle weights, rollerblades, squash gear, yoga mats, that kind of thing) acquired through thinking “hey, if I buy that, it’ll make me fit”. Since I’ve now run out of cupboard space, I have a rule that I must actually try these things before I spend any money. So, before running off to Tottenham Court Road to drool over portable video players, I decided I had to try out this idea to see if it worked. My better half has a 5G video iPod that she offered to lend me for this experiment, so I figured all I had to do was import a couple of West Wing episodes into iTunes, sync them onto her iPod, take it to the gym, and see how it goes.

Oh, if only it was that easy. iTunes is blissfully ignorant of DVDs. Presumably because they’d much rather you paid for a second copy of everything from the iTunes video store. I should mention that they do now have a thing called the iTunes Digital Copy – where you get a DVD, and a second disc with a digital copy of the same movie in MP4 format that you can transfer once onto one iTunes computer. Which is frankly completely stupid. There’s already a perfectly good digital copy of the movie on the first disc – that’s what DVD is. Next thing you know, they’ll be trying to sell you three copies of Timecop for $18

I eventually managed to transfer one disc’s worth of shows, via a convoluted process of trial-and-error involving VLC, Handbrake and lots of tedious waiting around to see if this time it would actually work. Long story short. Yes, it’s possible, (and yes, watching West Wing in the gym is frikkin’ awesome). No, it’s not easy. On Mac OS X, Handbrake does a reasonable job. On a PC, it’s even worse because the PC version of Handbrake won’t read DVDs directly. There are many extremely dodgy-looking DVD-to-iPod convertors on Google; there’s also some wonderfully powerful open-source tools around that can read, write and transcode the various formats, but none of them are particularly intuitive. Encoding a DVD file for the iPhone using ffmpeg is apparently as easy as:

ffmpeg -threads 4 -i %1 -r 29.97 -vcodec libx264 -s 480x272 -flags +loop -cmp +chroma -deblockalpha 0 -deblockbeta 0 -crf 24 -bt 256k -refs 1 -coder 0 -me umh -me_range 16 -subq 5 -partitions +parti4x4+parti8x8+partp8x8 -g 250 -keyint_min 25 -level 30 -qmin 10 -qmax 51 -trellis 2 -sc_threshold 40 -i_qfactor 0.71 -acodec libfaac -ab 128k -ar 48000 -ac 2 %~n1.mp4

- see? It’s that easy! Now, I love ffmpeg. For doing weird and wonderful things with video, it’s unsurpassed – but this? This should be easy. I bought a DVD in a store, and I want to watch it on a consumer video playback appliance. I’m not stealing anything, sharing anything, or doing anything even remotely anarchist – I’m just being a good little consumer who spent a lot of money on shiny things and wants them to play nicely together.

Let me say right now that I will give a huge amount of love and cash to the first company who can come up with a nice way of making video as convenient as MP3 is right now.

I can buy a CD in a store, rip it at work, listen to the MP3s on the way home, copy them off my MP3 player onto my media server and listen to them again while I’m making dinner. I can buy MP3s online from pretty much anywhere, play them on anything, and even burn them back onto CD to listen to in the car. (And for the record, I’m quite happy paying more for high-quality MP3s than I do for physical CDs, because you save me the hassle of ripping it myself.)

Well, I want the same with video. I’ve already spent a fortune on DVDs. I’m not going to buy those movies and TV shows again – there is nothing wrong with the quality or content of my existing purchases, and I know it’s technically possible to do what I want, because those catch little ffmpeg incantations like the one above seem to do a pretty good job. And yeah, I know it’s probably not going to happen because of copyright, piracy, the DMCA, and the usual bureaucratic reasons that only really matter to people who don’t have time to circumvent them.

But until that happens - Apple, how about this, just for starters?

Allow each iTunes Music Store account to make a single DRM-encoded copy of a particular DVD. I can download The  Dark Knight from the iTunes Music Store, and watch it on my five authorized devices, and neither Apple nor the MPAA nor Warner Bros seem to have a problem with this. They get their money, I get my movie, end of story. So why not just provide a way of doing the same thing, but instead of downloading it from you, I can buy The Dark Knight in HMV and rip it myself? The file’s still encrypted, still DRM-protected, and if nothing else, it’ll save you 8Gb worth of bandwidth. 

Mmm. Shiny. Open source. Linux. Want.Apple have proved with iTunes that most consumers don’t actually care about DRM, ideology, freedom or any of that stuff, because they’d rather just play with the shiny things. They have proved this astonishingly well, and created such very lovely shiny things into the bargain, that I’m verging on just ditching any pretence of principled consumerism and buying an iPod Touch. They’re pretty, and they work, and apparently they now play Scrabble as well. Bonus.

But – it looks like if I want to watch West Wing in the gym, I’m resigned to using DVD rippers, ffmpeg.exe and command-line encoding hacks anyway. So I’m thinking I should sod Apple and buy an Archos, since they have bigger drives, bigger screens, Linux under the hood, and no DRM.  If I end up spending a couple of hours a week hacking ffmpeg instead of working out, then that’s what I was doing last week anyway. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose