Unbeknownst to most consumers there’s an anti-piracy protocol built right into the HDMI cable standard. Not only does it have a poor track record when it comes to piracy prevention it outright breaks the viewing experience for many people. Read on as we explain how it works, why it breaks your TV, and how you can fix it.
HDCP: DRM for the HDMI Age
Digital Rights Management (DRM) protocols are protocols designed to protect content creators and distributors against piracy. Different companies and industries use different protocols, but the basic premise is the same. The DRM generally performs one of two tasks (or both) to prevent piracy: it locks purchases to the purchase makers and it locks content to authorized devices. When you buy an album on iTunes and you can only listen to it on devices authorized by your account, you’re experiencing DRM. When you buy an operating system or video game and they can only be installed on a single computer, you’re experiencing DRM.
Content creators and distributors should be protected as it is expensive to create and distribute content, and they should be compensated for that content. However, DRM typically makes life more difficult for honest paying consumers and in many cases it can outright break the experience those paying consumers. This is the kind of trouble we run into with games that require authorization servers to run; if the company goes under so does the authorization server and suddenly the game won’t run.
In the case of the HDMI standard and digital video there’s a DRM standard just like there is in other industries and that DRM standard causes an unfortunate amount of headaches for regular old consumers just trying to enjoy their televisions and engage in other legitimate activties.
HDMI’s DRM protocol is known as High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection. The protocol was developed by Intel and is used not just with HDMI but a variety of digital video standards like DisplayPort and Digital Visual Interface. It provides for an encrypted connection between a content outputting device (like a Blu-ray player, cable box, streaming stick like the Chromecast or Roku Stick) and a receiving device (an audio-video receiver in a media center setup or the HDTV itself).
HDCP is everywhere and is built into devices like Blu-ray players, cable boxes, satellite TV receivers, and streaming video hardware like the Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV. It’s also built into laptops and computer hardware, DVRs, and other modern HDMI devices.
Like other forms of DRM, such as the previously mentioned game authorization server, HDCP isn’t without its problems and outright breaks the viewing experience for many consumers.
Where HDCP Breaks Down
Although the underlying encryption and protocols are sophisticated and outside the scope of this article, the basic premise of how HDMI HDCP works is quite simple. There is a licensing body that issues licenses for HDCP devices. Each HDCP compliant device, like your Blu-ray player or Xbox, has a license and the ability to talk to the device it is outputting the signal to over the HDMI cable.
The outputting device says “Hey display! Are you HDCP compliant? Here is my license, show me your license!” and in turn the display (or other HDCP compliant device) returns with “I am! Here is my license!” When that process is working, it happens within a thousandth of a second and you, the consumer, never even notice. You power on your Blu-ray player or DVR, it makes nice with your HDTV, and you live a happy life never knowing what HDCP even is.
Unfortunately, however, there are a host of situations where HDCP gets in the way of consumers doing perfectly legal things with their devices and content. If any device in the chain is not HDCP compliant, the video stream will fail.
For example, if you have an older HDTV set that is not HDCP compliant then you cannot watch any HDCP compliant content on it. If you plug in your Blu-ray player, a Chromecast, or any other device that follows HDCP standards you’ll either see a blank screen or you’ll see an error message like “ERROR: NON-HDCP OUTPUT” or simply “HDCP ERROR.”
Want to turn that old monitor with integrated speakers into a cheap little video box with a Chromecast? Sorry, there’s a very good chance that old monitor (despite having an HDMI port) is not HDCP compliant. You won’t be streaming anything to it unless you want to dedicate a whole computer to the project.
Want to record your video game sessions or stream them live? It’s hit or miss. Console makers have gotten better about recognizing that players want to record and stream their content but HDCP is still problematic. The Sony Playstation lineup is a perfect example of this problem. While Sony did release an update in 2014 for the PlayStation 4 that unlocked HDCP lock during while actually playing the game, they can’t provide the same update for the PlayStation 3 because the HDCP output is locked at the chip level in the PS3. Their only advice is to buy a capture device that supports component cables and use those instead of HDMI.
Even when we’re not actively watching TV or gaming, we still find HDCP to be annoying and intrusive. We write all sorts of tutorials and reviews here at How-To Geek that involve HDMI-based products like the Amazon Fire TV and the like. You know what you can’t capture because of HDCP? The on-screen menus while the video content is loaded. It’s pretty irritating to have a content protection system get in the way of you reviewing and promoting streaming devices that legitimately deliver content to millions of paying customers, we’ll tell you that much.
There’s nothing illegal or unethical about hooking a Blu-ray player up to an old TV, trying to recycle an old computer monitor into a little Chromecast-powered streaming station, recording and streaming your video game play, or trying to capture menus and screen shots to write tutorials and guides, but thanks to a flawed DRM protocol anyone who wants to any or all of those things is left in the dark.
How to Fix Your HDCP Problem
Absolutely no one should have to buy a new television set, upgrade their perfectly fine audio-video receiver, or otherwise spend significant piles of money to solve a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place, yet officially the only way to comply with HDCP is to buy a new HDCP-compliant device.
That’s the most absurd thing about the HDCP protection scheme is that there is no HDCP-compliant way to circumvent it for legitimate use cases. There are zero methods endorsed or supported by the agency in charge of HDCP that help consumers in anyway if they have older equipment or a legitimate non-piracy need to interact in any way with an HDCP-compliant device. To add further insult to injury, the HDCP standard has been compromised for years now and manufacturers continuing to pay for licenses and including it in their products has everything to do with not wanting to fight with the licensing agency and the anti-piracy lobby and very little to do with actually stopping piracy (or helping consumers). So what can you do to deal with the outdated and now compromised mess that is HDCP?
Short of buying a new television or giving up on your video game project the only way to deal with your HDCP compliance problem is to buy a cheap HDMI splitter that ignores HDCP requests.
We really wish we were kidding, but that’s the secret media center ingredient that has helped thousands of consumers and the very same secret ingredient that we use here at How-To Geek when we need to take screenshots of an on-screen menu to showcase a product we’re reviewing.
Specifically, we use the ViewHD 2-Port 1×2 Powered HDMI Splitter (Model: VHD-1X2MN3D) ($24) because even among cheap HDMI splitters there is no consistency as to whether or not they will be HDMI compliant (even, sometimes, among products from the very same company). A little careful reading and using the Amazon reviews search function goes a long way toward ferreting out cheap splitters that other consumers have had success with (like this CKITZ BG-520 1×2 HDMI splitter).
To use the splitter, simply put it between the device(s) giving you the HDCP error and the display device. For example, if you have a simple configuration like you just want to plug a Chromecast into an old monitor, you’d plug the Chromecast into “Input 1” on your HDMI splitter and use an HDMI cable to connect the splitter from “Output 1” to your display. If you have a new audio-video receiver that doesn’t play nice with your old HDTV, plug all your HDMI devices into the receiver and then place the HDMI splitter between the receiver and the display.
In the photo above you can see the simple setup on our desk, used for capturing menus and screenshots while reviewing HDMI devices. In this example we’re feeding the Amazon Fire TV Stick into the ViewHD splitter, then passing the signal over to the Roxio GameCapHD Pro so we can snap the screenshots on our computer. Where we place the GameCapHD Pro in the chain is where the vast majority of users seeking this solution would have their TV plugged in.
Here’s what our attempts at capturing good screenshots for our tutorials looked like before dealing with the HDCP problem.
You can see how such a screenshot would be pretty useless for our purposes; nobody wants to see what the menu of a device they’re considering purchasing looks like with a big ugly error message across the back. In this example, even though we’re using a capture tool, you’re seeing exactly what a home user with an HDCP-non-compliant HDTV would see: the non HDCP-protected part of the video is passed through (the menu bar and pause button) but the actual content is removed.
Here’s what the exact same screenshot looks like, but with the signal passed through the splitter to strip away the HDCP nonsense.
You can imagine, given our love for clever and thoughtful solutions to the problems that plague people, how absurd we find it that the solution to a problem which shouldn’t even exist is “buy an out-of-spec device that ignores the faulty protocol.” Nonetheless, that’s exactly the situation consumers find themselves in and thankfully, whether through poor or intentional design, there are products out there that get new media players talking to old HDTVs.
Have a pressing tech question? Shoot us an email at ask@howtogeek and we’ll do our best to help.