A camera producing an error when photographers use unofficial third-party batteries isn’t anything new. However, reports of possible digital rights management (DRM) being used in Nikon batteries, at least with its new Z8 camera, is worth taking a closer look at.
Spotted by Nikon Rumors, it appears that Nikon might restrict customers to using original Nikon batteries in the Z8. In a private Nikon Z8 Facebook group, users are reportedly discussing the topic, too. While Nikon Rumors itself hasn’t experienced an issue with third-party batteries on the Z8, there seems to be something going on.
The post that Rossman references in the video is a cross-post from r/nikon by photographer sean_themighty. In the original post, sean_themighty, who goes by Sean Molin on Instagram, writes, “If you planned ahead and picked up extra batteries, just be prepared! These were specifically the BM Premium EN-EL15C batteries, one of the more popular third-party ones, and I never had issues on the Z6 II.”
Referencing a highly-upvoted comment on r/piracy about the Z8 battery error, Rossman says, “So this Nikon camera is telling the user, ‘I see that you’ve installed a battery of your choice, no, no, no, you’ve gotta buy a battery of our choice, which is most likely going to be made by us at an extreme markup.’ The reason this may aggravate the user is the OEM is going to mark up their accessories to an insane extent.”
Rossman describes the high prices that companies like Nikon and Sony charge for their accessories and says that he, like many others, goes the third-party route to save money and not support what some consider aggressive and unreasonable business practices by major manufacturers.
Is it DRM?
What’s interesting about this message is the part that says, “unable to provide data.” Suppose, for example, the issue was that a third-party battery wasn’t providing stable or consistent enough power to the Z8. In that case, it’d be reasonable to expect the message to say something else and not reference an inability to provide data to the camera.
It’s worth noting that Nikon has previously taken steps to curtail third-party batteries’ use in its cameras. Back in 2013, Nikon released firmware updates for several camera models that rendered at least some third-party batteries unusable. At that time, it wasn’t clear if that was an intended consequence of the firmware update or not. Still, the update did include changes to how the affected camera models determined the remaining charge of their battery.
Real versus ‘Fake’ is a Longstanding Issue in the Industry
In 2014, the year following Nikon’s third-party-battery-breaking firmware update, Canon sent out a PSA telling its customers to stop using third-party batteries for their “safety.” The PSA included ways for photographers to tell authentic batteries apart from “fake” ones.
Third-party batteries are one thing — and a product that camera companies themselves seem to take issue with — but perhaps more nefarious are counterfeit batteries and charges. Amazon and Canon allege that many bad actors are selling batteries and chargers that appear to be genuine Canon products. That’s especially harmful because people believe they’re buying a genuine product when they aren’t.
Nikon also got involved in a counterfeit battery issue in 2019, when B&H informed its customers that it had shipped out “subpar” Nikon batteries. The “Nikon batteries” weren’t genuine, and B&H, an authorized Nikon retailer, had sold customers counterfeit batteries.
Third-Party Batteries are Cheaper and Sometimes Worse
Some photographers have no qualms about using third-party batteries, but it’s essential they people know that they’re buying and using an unofficial product.
Popular photography retailers also don’t have any issues selling third-party batteries — Adorama and B&H sell various third-party batteries for a wide range of cameras.
Many photographers choose to use third-party batteries, at least as extra power supplies, because they’re much cheaper. But are they just as good at a lower price? An exhaustive test showed how different batteries performed inside the Canon EOS R5 mirrorless camera. Despite claiming better performance than Canon’s battery, the third-party offerings were all outperformed by Canon’s pricier official battery.
It may be easy to conclude that Nikon is using DRM and aiming to squeeze more money from its customers. As of now, that’s way too big of a leap. For starters, it’s not confirmed that any DRM is involved here. Until that’s established, assume that the Z8 isn’t doing anything special and third-party batteries aren’t being prohibited from use in the Z8 on a large scale.
Some users are having issues with third-party batteries in the Nikon Z8, but that’s as far as that story goes for now.
However, there are important reasons why cameras have historically not played nicely with certain third-party batteries. Cameras like the Z8 use lithium-ion batteries, which, if not thermally constrained and well-designed, can be very dangerous. An overheating battery can expand, catch on fire, and even explode — which would be horrific if a camera was up to someone’s face, but also very dangerous if a camera was in a bag in a car or house.
Like photographers, camera makers don’t want their cameras blowing up. It would then make sense to prevent poorly made batteries from being used inside a camera.
It’s also possible for malicious third-party battery makers to try to get around a camera’s thermal limitations. It’s also sometimes the case that third-party batteries are accidentally dangerous, as companies are motivated to cut corners in the constant battle to offer the cheapest solution.
Importantly, not all third-party makers participate in the dangerous race to the bottom, and certainly not at the cost of user safety.
Nikon Z8 and Batteries
However, if Nikon really is using some DRM in its Nikon Z8 camera, how long before all the company’s cameras reject third-party batteries? DRM doesn’t always work, as evidenced by a Canon ink cartridge debacle last year. Due to a chip shortage, Canon couldn’t put the proper electronics in its ink cartridges that are required for the DRM to work, so it had to advise customers about how to bypass its own DRM.
It’d be devastating, especially to photographers on a deadline, if their cameras started rejecting official batteries due to a software glitch or a faulty DRM chip.
Rossman thinks it’d also be awful for customers’ bank accounts. The third-party battery situation has been relatively static for years. While companies try to sell their more expensive accessories, and occasionally cameras have had issues with specific third-party batteries for quality reasons, companies have rarely taken meaningful steps to prevent people from using whatever battery they want.
If third-party batteries are no longer viable due to DRM, what might happen to the price of first-party batteries? Basic laws of supply and demand suggest that companies would inevitably begin charging more for their batteries, and photographers may be left with little recourse against it.
A possible solution is to enable thermal monitoring and control in a camera’s battery socket, which would add cost. Another alternative is a soft DRM solution that warns customers about a third-party battery but doesn’t prevent their use. There are ways to protect customers from risky batteries without outright stopping customers from being able to use them.
That said, from a business perspective, making it easier or safer for customers to use unofficial accessories doesn’t make sense.
However, adding more credence to the idea that Nikon isn’t using DRM in the Z8 — the camera remains compatible with some very old Nikon batteries, including the now-discontinued EN-EL15A that was originally introduced in 2015.
PetaPixel reached out to Nikon for comment and will update this story when, and if, it hears back.