What is HDCP? All that you should know about digital content protection standards

In today’s age of HD and 4k screens, we need new standards that can help us utilize the full potential of our HD displays and high fidelity music systems. That said, we hardly use the yellow, red and white analogue RCA ports for getting a display and audio. While plugging in multiple cables makes cable management difficult, we still don’t get the optimum performance, obviously, because of the problems, analogue systems suffer from. But besides that, analogue connections for audio and video have their own limitations on pen and paper. With video over an RCA connection, we can’t get over the 480i or 576i resolution, and getting a better audio quality means plugging in more cables, making cable management even more difficult.

But then something came as a blessing to solve all out troubles. Yes, it is HDMI. As we all know, HDMI connections can carry both high definition audio and video signals through a single thick cable, and it offers better performance over its analogue counterparts. As it is a digital connection between two devices, you can always expect a lot better performance. What you just need to get the advantages of an HDMI connection, is an HDMI-enabled source, like a set-top box, Chromecast or any streaming device, gaming console, your computer’s graphics card, and a receiver, which can be your TV or a computer monitor. The latest HDMI standard can handle 10k at 120 Hz. But, the content creators needed something to copy-protect their content, when it passes through multiple devices. That’s when HDCP came in.

What is HDCP? Explanation

HDCP or High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection is a digital content protection standard, designed by the technology-giant Intel Corporation that ensures, the contents are not copied, at least at its best quality, when it travels through an HDMI connection from one device to the other, even when there are multiple devices in between.

That’s the simplest definition of what is HDCP. Now let’s have a look at how it works, and how secure it is to actually protect content with HDCP enabled devices.

How HDCP works?

As HDCP is an encryption mechanism, the restrictions on recording the content are limited only to copyrighted content like movies, TV and web shows, etc. There is a handshaking between the source and the receiver, where the encryption keys are exchanged, to make the devices ready to send and receive signals to be displayed on the screen and play the audio associated with it. 

In HDCP, basically, there are 3 elements that make the connection take place and display the content on screen. The source, receiver, and the sink. The name source is self-explanatory, which can be any device that generates HDCP protected content. It can be a set-top box, your computer, streaming devices, Blu-ray players, etc.

The sink is the device that can receive the signal and display the content. It can be your TV, a computer monitor, a digital projector, etc. Yes, simple!

The repeater is the device that lies between the source and the sink, and functions as the intermediate between the two. It can even repeat the signal, as the name suggests, to multiple displays, and transmit it to wireless receivers, etc.

HDCP limitations are supposed to be applicable only on content that is digitally protected, and not for other content like at the time recording video games or stream them online. But still, problems come in due to the improper implementation and the underlying problems of the standard, as well.

The problems with HDCP standards

For HDCP-compliant content to play properly on particular devices, both the source as well as the sink, which is your TV or monitor should comply with the HDCP standards that your source supports. If it is not so, you will not be able to see the content, not even if you have the digital rights to watch it or have a legitimate license to enjoy the show.

During the handshaking process, the source device will send a signal to the sink. But, if the sink, i.e. your TV is not HDCP compliant, which can be the case for a number of old devices out there, a connection will not be established. In such a case, you might find an error or will not get any display at all.

On the other hand, if you have multiple screens, where you want to display the same content from a single source, using a splitter or anything of that sort, that might not work the same way as that of analogue splitters. Here, as well, HDCP causes issues, and you might need to invest extra if you want to utilize multiple screens for your family’s entertainment.

HDCP keeps upgrading with time, just like other standards, and if your source device gets an upgrade, which eventually upgrades the HDCP standard on your source device, your source device might not be compatible with your TV, if the HDCP version on your TV doesn’t get a corresponding update. This is a big issue with dumb TVs, as most of them suffer from a lack of software updates and after-sales support.

For a normal user, it can be really troublesome, however, those who actually want to create pirated copies can easily break the weak encryption standards that come with HDCP, and there are even some hardware solutions, which can help you get your job done. I will talk about this later.

Getting over HDCP limitations. The possibilities

There are cheap HDMI splitters available online, and in local markets, which can be used to get over HDCP limitations if you are lucky. Mostly, such devices come with one or two HDMI inputs with a single output to your TV or your display device. The output can subsequently be passed through a recording device to the device, which can help you record the playback, and watch it at the same time.

However, there is no guarantee that the splitter you purchase will actually serve the purpose. You might end up with errors, or no display at all if your HDCP-compliant source doesn’t share a good relationship with the splitter or it fails to recognize the splitter for some reason. So, it can be a hit or miss!

The latest HDCP standard is HDCP version 2.3, which was released back in 2018. Before 2018, as well, it came across multiple revisions, and the new splitter that you are getting might not play around properly with the latest standards. However, if a new version of HDCP comes, and your source device receives it through a firmware upgrade, it might break compatibility with the existing splitter, and you might end up with the same problem all over again. This is just the same problem, I have discussed in the last section.

How good is HDCP?

Hope you have already got your answer. The HDCP standard is flawed in some way or the other, and if not that, is really frustrating for most users. Obviously, not everybody is a geek and can get over all the hurdles or invest some pennies to make things compatible with each other, without any surety that it would work.

Even most device manufacturers have HDMI compliance, not because it actually helps in keeping away piracy, but they simply don’t want to be responsible for violating any norms that are framed by the international agencies to curb piracy.

The future might see a better way to curb piracy ditching the HDCP protocol, but when and whether something of that sort happens! It is time, who actually has the answer.

So that was all you need to know about HDCP. Do you have any questions? Feel free to comment on the same below.

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