Microsoft announced today that it will ease the copy protection features in Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE), the new XP version for digital media enthusiasts that will ship with Hewlett-Packard (HP) media center PCs beginning this month. Previously, the company had architected XP MCE to let consumers back up television programming recorded with the product's digital video recording (DVR) feature to playback only on the PC that made the recording. But under the new policy, XP MCE recordings can be copied to recordable DVD and played back on any PC running XP Service Pack 1 (SP1) and Windows Media Player 9 (WMP 9). DVD players featuring support for the new Windows Media Video (WMV) 9 codec will also be able to playback the backup DVDs, the company says.

Originally, Microsoft designed the copy protection scheme to prevent action from television companies, concerned that the DVR technology in XP MCE and in consumer electronics devices like the TiVo would be a threat to intellectual property. The problem is that XP MCE, like other DVR solutions, makes virtually perfect digital copies of original content, which could include Hollywood movies on HBO or pay-per-view events for which consumers normally pay extra, over and above the normal monthly cable or satellite TV bill.

But the company said the restriction change came about due to customer complaints. "We got a lot of customer, partner and analyst feedback," said Michael Toutonghi, the vice president of the Windows eHome Division at Microsoft. "People felt we took an overly conservative approach." Lately, Microsoft has come under fire for being the first company to roll-out successful Digital Rights Management (DRM) software, which protects content providers from intellectual property theft. Many consumers and even analysts see DRM as anti-consumer, and point to companies such as Apple Computer, which don't have a viable DRM solution. But Apple and other Microsoft competitors are indeed working on DRM solutions too. It's just that Microsoft got there first, and the company is using the technology to drive adoption of its Windows Media 9 Series suite of digital media technologies.

In addition to the DRM support that's part of the Windows Media Player product in XP MCE, Microsoft's latest XP version also ships with another form of copy protection. The product supports a broadcasting standard, CGMS/A (Copy-Guard Management System/Analog), which lets TV networks protect content, making it impossible to record. Microsoft says that " 99 percent" of today's broadcast TV shows do not use CGMS/A, but that situation could change, naturally, if DVR products such as XP MCE prove popular.

Windows XP Media Center Edition is an intriguing, if somewhat flawed product. I'll have my full review of the new operating system available today, followed by a review of HP's new media center PC in early November.