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Why Does HDCP Exist?


The majority of HDMI, DVI, and Display Port technology nowadays supports a digital protection protocol popularly known as HDCP. HDCP, also called High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection, was designed by Intel in the year 2004 and continues to be a relevant way to protect digital content creators from piracy and illegal duplication.

With all that said, HDCP isn’t a perfect protocol invented for digital content protection.

In this article, we answer the questions:

  • Why does HDCP exist?
  • How does HDCP work?
  • Is HDCP necessary on all digital devices?
  • And more

Stick around to learn more about HDCP.

Why Does HDCP Exist?

It used to be that if you wanted to watch crisp and clear images on your TV screen, you needed more than a dozen analog cables to get the mix right. But thanks to the invention of HDMI cables, the game was completely changed, and videophiles no longer had to trip over a bunch of wires while walking to the kitchen for more popcorn.

woman plugs HDMI cable into TV

With all that said, manufacturers found it risky to give users so much power to communicate and copy content over a single channel. Thus, the HDCP system was created.

The HDCP protocol was designed to mitigate the piracy and duplication of copyrighted digital content. Everything from DVDs to streaming devices like Roku and Amazon Fire Stick is now equipped with HDCP encryption.

How Does HDCP work?

Every HDCP compliant device is given a specific encryption key that lets them communicate with other HDCP-approved equipment. Before any content is transmitted between two points, each device needs to exchange keys to establish an encrypted connection. Once that’s done, the file transfer can resume.

mobile data encryption

To make matters even more complicated for pirates, the encryption is done in multiple phases of the process. In other words, the transmitters place a security code on the data for the receivers to decipher and vice versa.

This explains why non-HDCP-compliant devices can’t read HDCP-protected content. They don’t have the technology to decrypt the security codes placed on them by the protocol.

What is the Latest HDCP Version?

The latest HDCP version available is HDCP 2.3. However, it’s not the most widely used. Since HDCP 2.3 protects 8K resolution formats, there’s no need for everyone to have it on their devices.

Meanwhile, HDCP 2.2 supports both HD and 4K UHD, making it the most popular HDCP version today.

Is HDCP Necessary on All Digital Devices?

The law doesn’t technically require all devices to support HDCP. However, if a manufacturer wants access to services such as Netflix, HBO Go, and many other streaming platforms, they will need an HDCP license.

a person opens netflix on TV

This is because HDCP now protects many content creators and streaming services.

To get HDCP approval, manufacturers must pay an annual license fee and adhere to several conditions set by the Digital Content Protection LLC.

Is HDCP Really an Effective Form of Digital Content Protection?

Although HDCP adds an extra layer of protection for digital content creators, it isn’t the most effective digital privacy management system. Especially with how savvy hackers have gotten at decrypting HDCP keys, illegally accessing and copying digital content are still as easy as pie for them.

If anything, HDCP is more effective at making digital content creation much harder for creators.

For instance, HDCP can prevent users from taking screenshots of protected digital content. If you’re a YouTuber or writer like many of the creators online are, this can be very inconvenient.

Drawbacks of HDCP-Protected Devices

Experts have recorded HDCP’s multiple weaknesses and lapses over the years. In 2010, one of HDCP’s master keys was released to the public, and many took advantage of it and created their own HDCP device keys.

There hasn’t been a more recent leak; however, the HDCP protocol still has a couple of lapses that get on many people’s nerves. Let’s talk a little more about these drawbacks in the following sections.

Limited displays

HDCP-protected equipment can create multiple keys for different functions, but the number may vary between devices. Each key determines how many exchanges you’re able to perform successfully. In other words, it decides how many displays you can support on a single source.

a laptop and monitor

Imagine you’re trying to stream your favorite TV shows from your laptop to an external monitor. If your device only supports a single key, this data transfer might not successfully go through. You’ll have to just settle for your laptop’s small screen.

HDCP handshake errors

Handshake errors are yet another issue that often happens with HDCP-protected devices.

After a successful exchange of keys between two HDCP-supported devices, an encrypted bridge is created between the two points. This is what users call a “handshake.”

Handshake errors are by far the most irritating because they can happen even with two HDCP compliant devices, especially if one HDCP version is older than the other.

HDCP bypass

The HDCP protocol is not a solid front against piracy. Besides hacking its encryption, there are other ways around this security system. For example, using an HDMI splitter — which you can buy for a couple of dollars from the nearest AV supplies store.

HDMI splitter

Simply slap this little device between your receiver and transmitter, and you can freely stream, copy, and watch a wide variety of HDCP-protected content. What’s more, is that you can play this content on multiple devices at a time.

All that said, this bypass might not work as well with newer TV models. Manufacturers are doing their best to update their HDMI ports and this entails newer updates for the HDCP protocol as well.

Can I Legally Remove or Bypass HDCP from My Device?

To put it simply, it’s illegal to remove or bypass HDCP protocols from any device. However, because there is technically no way for HDCP to detect which devices have conducted a bypass, users are definitely free to do it if they wish.

Final thoughts

Although HDCP was developed with good intentions, the protocol is hardly fool-proof. It does its best to keep pirates from illegally copying and redistributing them online. However, it also has a bunch of vulnerabilities that can be easily taken advantage of with the right tools.

Furthermore, it gets in the way of completely legal user activities, like taking screenshots from a protected website or streaming paid content from a non-compliant screen.

If you’re stuck with an HDCP-protected device, ensure that all the other equipment you use to connect to it is also HDCP-approved. Otherwise, you’ll be greeted with snow or a black screen when you plug your connectors in.

Remember this the next time you stop at your local AV supply store.


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