Skip to content
Thoughtful, detailed coverage of everything Apple for 34 years
and the TidBITS Content Network for Apple professionals

DRM Foils iTunes Movie Rentals for Some Apple TV Owners

Like many Apple TV owners, I was excited to learn that the 2.0 software (or “Take 2,” as Apple refers to it) would be a free upgrade for those who already own the media player. One of the first things I did on my refreshed Apple TV was test a movie rental. The process of finding a movie and renting it was simple and quick. I wasn’t planning on watching it right away, so I let the movie download over my somewhat pokey Internet connection overnight.

When I sat down to watch it, however, the Apple TV wouldn’t let me, due to the way I have the device set up. You see, I don’t own an HDTV, which is required for the Apple TV. Sony let me borrow a 40-inch Bravia last year when I was writing my book “The Apple TV Pocket Guide,” but of course I had to give that back. Since then, my Apple TV has been connected to a Dell FPW2005 20-inch LCD display (the same kind to which I connect my MacBook Pro at home and at the office). The two devices are connected by a cable that has an HDMI plug on one end (which attaches to the Apple TV) and a DVI plug on the other (connecting the Dell monitor). It’s a setup that has worked well,
even if it’s not a fancy big-screen television.

When I attempted to watch the movie, however, the Apple TV displayed an error message: “This content requires HDCP for playback.” HDCP (High Bandwidth Digital Content Protection) is a form of digital rights management (DRM) that prevents you from playing video over DVI and HDMI connections (in my case) if you don’t own compatible hardware that can decode the signal properly. (In other words, HDCP is more crap DRM that does nothing but irritate legitimate customers.) Although I had downloaded the movie legally, my monitor apparently was too old to include HDCP and thus wouldn’t display my movie.

But this isn’t a high-horse article about how the media and electronics companies are hell-bent on screwing their customers. (No, really.) Beneath the error message was a note that I could watch the movie using the Apple TV’s component connection instead. I couldn’t take advantage of the HDMI solution that sends video and audio down one cable, but I could output video through the three component video cables and separately attach audio to the Apple TV. Unfortunately, the Dell monitor, being primarily a computer display, didn’t include component connections.

Although you can purchase a component-to-DVI adapter on the Internet for around $25, some unsolicited sleuthing by my colleague Andrew Laurence (who owns the same display) turned up a problem: this Dell model employs a DVI-D (digital) connection, but you need DVI-I (integrated) or DVI-A (analog) to use one of those adapters. Many Dell monitors after that model are compatible, but not ours. So much for that idea.

In a better world where media companies aren’t clueless and paranoid (sorry, toning down the aggression – deep breaths), I’d simply transfer the movie to my MacBook Pro or iPhone. But anything you rent directly from the Apple TV can be viewed only on the Apple TV. If you rent a movie on your Mac via iTunes, that movie can be transferred between an iPhone, iPod, or Apple TV. My movie was trapped on the Apple TV, with the only way to watch it being hooking up the Apple TV to a compatible device.

I could have simply sacrificed the $4 rental fee and chalked it up as the cost of research, but $4 is also the cost of a pair of double-espressos and is therefore real money. So I did what I imagine few people do: I wrote to Apple. It took a bit of navigating, but ultimately I ended up at a form where I could contact iTunes Store support. I explained my predicament and sent the message into what I expected would be yet another corporate email black hole.

Within 24 hours, I received a reply: “I’m sorry to hear that you can’t play the movie that you rented. I have reversed the charge for this rental. You will see a credit of $4.35 USD, plus any applicable taxes, in three to five business days. If store credit was used for this rental, you should see the credit after you sign out of the iTunes Store and sign back in. Please note that the iTunes Store Terms of Sale states that all rentals are final, so this is a one-time exception.”

Now, the movie is on its way back to me, this time via iTunes so I can watch it later on my iPhone. I guess I won’t be watching iTunes movie rentals via the Apple TV, and if your TV or display doesn’t support HDCP, component video, or the appropriate flavors of DVI, you’ll be avoiding it too.

Subscribe today so you don’t miss any TidBITS articles!

Every week you’ll get tech tips, in-depth reviews, and insightful news analysis for discerning Apple users. For over 33 years, we’ve published professional, member-supported tech journalism that makes you smarter.

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA. The Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.