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What is HDCP (High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection)?

What is HDCP (High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection)?

Michelle Wilson
Reading time: 5 minutes
Some of the most fascinating parts of our digital world are the parts we don’t see. You might not think about it when you’re watching movies or TV, but one aspect of behind-the-scenes technology is the anti-piracy measures that protect the content you watch. These protections are built around defending copyright laws.
Copyright infringement occurs when works like books or movies are used without permission. Certain exclusive rights are given to the copyright holder of the digital or written content like the right to display, distribute, or reproduce the work. Using these works without permission tramples on those rights, and costs the creator or owner money, in the bargain.
A report from Digital TV Research suggests that piracy is expected to cost the television and film industry $52 billion by the year 2022. [1] With that information in mind, it makes sense that creators and engineers are eager to take steps to protect their intellectual property.
HDCP is an embedded technology created to help crack down on this issue. It’s a type of Digital Rights Management (DRM) which are processes designed to shield content creators and distributors against digital piracy. We’ll explore how anti-piracy technology like HDCP is helping artists, creators, developers, and producers keep their work intact and under control.

What is HDCP?

HDCP stands for High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection. It’s a coding scheme developed by Intel used to protect audio and video signals traveling through DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort from being copied and illegally intercepted during a streaming session. [2] It shields the transfer of digital content from a video source like a computer or DVD player to a receiver like a monitor or TV screen. [3] This technology was officially approved by the Federal Communications Commission in 2004. [4]
ComputerHope outlines the three types of HDCP security rules that protect data: [5]
  1. Data traveling through HDCP-enabled cabling is encrypted to stay hidden from cyber criminals.
  2. Digital devices that end up being compromised have their keys taken away. This means the device can no longer get data.
  3. Authentication prevents data and content from being sent to digital devices that don’t have a license.
These security measures mean that HDCP-certified devices are the only ones that receive an HDCP-encrypted digital signal. It works by encrypting a digital signal with a key that requires authentication from both transmitting and receiving products.

Why use HDCP?

Digital Content Protection LLC, an Intel subsidiary group that licenses HDCP, was created to protect TV shows, audio content, and digital movies from being copied or accessed illegally. [6]

What does HDCP look like in practice?

It may be hard to imagine what HDCP actually means for you, the user, when it comes to your daily computing tasks. Here’s an example of the behind-the-scenes actions that happen with HDCP-licensed devices when you play a movie from a DVD player.
  1. After a DVD is placed in a computer, the transmitter makes sure the receiver (the computer) has the right license with HDCP key controls.
  2. If the computer doesn’t have the right license, it won’t receive the content data and cannot display the HDCP-encrypted data.
  3. If the computer does have HDCP controls, the movie will be displayed on the computer screen.
You might think this process happens only at the start of watching a movie but the transmitter continually checks the HDCP license throughout the viewing session. Meanwhile, it will also thwart other receivers from stealing or viewing the content.

What happens if the HDCP license is violated?

If the HDCP license is violated, there is a risk of fines and/or the loss of the ability to watch HDCP-protected content at all.

How do I troubleshoot HDCP license issues?

If you see an “HDCP Error Detected” message when you’re attempting to stream content, there are several troubleshooting steps you can take to resolve the issue. In most cases, HDCP errors crop up when there’s a problem with the physical connection between your TV and your device. [7]
You also may run into issues if you have an older HDTV that doesn’t have HDCP compliance so you won’t be able to watch any HDCP compliant content. When you try to watch content through a receiver like Chromecast, for example, you may be met with a blank screen or see a message that says “HDCP ERROR.” Sorry to have to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s no way around this issue other than using an updated display device.
Another context where you may run into some hiccups with HDCP is when you want to play and stream a video game simultaneously. Older consoles may not be HDCP compliant so you’d need to get a capture device as a workaround. [8]
HD Fury outlines some helpful steps to help reduce the risk of HDCP/HDMI “handshake” issues at the outset: [9]
  1. Start by turning off all devices
  2. Check that all extenders, cables, splitters, and switches are properly connected to the HDMI Distribution Network (you may want to switch out HDMI cables, too)
  3. Power on all necessary extenders, cables, splitters, and switches in the HDMI Distribution Network
  4. Turn on every display and set the HDMI input from the HDMI Distribution Network
  5. Turn on all sources

HDCP takeaways

Although HDCP is an important part of anti-piracy and security in our increasingly digital world, there are times when it can make streaming perfectly legal content a little bit more difficult. This is especially true if you have an older display device or you’re trying to live stream a game you’re sharing to your online followers.
In many cases, difficulties are due to using an older device, typically your monitor, that isn’t HDCP compliant. The only official workaround is investing in a new, compliant device like an HP EliteDisplay monitor, for example. Otherwise, you can try simple changes like switching out your HDMI cable and ensuring that all connections are secure.
[2] WiseGeek; What is HDCP?
[3] WiseGeek; What is HDCP?
[5] ComputerHope; HDCP
[6] Digital Content Protection; High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP)

About the Author

Michelle Wilson is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Michelle is a content creation specialist writing for a variety of industries, including tech trends and media news.

Disclosure: Our site may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on this page.