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Copy Protection In the Hot Seat

8 Dec, 2005 By: Jessica Wolf


The rather mundane issue of copy protection perhaps has never before received so much attention.

Two congressmen are proposing changes to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), even as Sony BMG faces a public relations nightmare in the wake of its most-recent copy protection scheme.

“There's a growing recognition in congress that the rights of copyright holders need to be balanced with the rights of consumers,” said Michael Petricone, VP of government relations for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). “What's really brought this home is the Sony issue.”

On more than 20 million CDs, Sony BMG included the Extended Copy Protection (XCP) and MediaMax programs, which automatically nestle into PC computer systems and work as spyware, leaving consumers open to security breaches. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and private attorney groups in Texas and the District of Columbia have filed class action suits against Sony BMG because of the software.

As the first Sony BMG suits land in courts, a new bill (H.R. 1201) hit the House of Representatives backed by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.). The bill reaffirms the Supreme Court's decision in the historic Betamax case, which protects the right to use consumer-recording devices. It also imposes strict notification requirements that suppliers like Sony BMG would have to include on any “anti-copy CDs.” Most importantly, the bill would protect consumers from prosecution for “circumventing” copy protection, as long as they do not use that copy for infringing purposes, such as mass production or distribution, digitally or otherwise.

“We strongly support H.R. 1201 as a first step in DMCA reform,” said Seth David Schoen, staff technologist for the EFF. That group is encouraging consumers to write to their legislators in support of the bill. Schoen said the bill doesn't go quite far enough; it doesn't address the ban on encryption circumvention tools.

Right now, any time a consumer uses any kind of software to circumvent encryption on a disc, they are infringing — even if they are trying to make a copy for personal use in a different device like a portable player.

That mentality just won't hold in today's market, claims CEA's Petricone.

The recent iTunes deal with ABC Disney for downloadable TV shows and its subsequent quick consumer uptake is a good example, he said.

“The trend in our industry is more and more products that allow consumers to time-shift and place-shift and let consumers view what they want, how they want and when they want on different devices,” he said. “We're talking about enabling consumers to make flexible use of content they legally acquired and paid for.”

Those who purchase product from iTunes are allowed to use the content in up to five different computers, on an iPod or to burn on a CD once. NBC Universal's deal with iTunes beefs up Apple's offerings of downloadable video content even more.

The whole issue revolves around consumer access versus content owner control. Copyright holders, such as the Hollywood studios, want to keep as much control over their content as possible. Watchdog groups such as CEA and EFF don't want that control to come at the expense of fair use, emerging technologies or how the consumer wants to interact with content, whether it is on a computer, in a DVD player or in a portable device.

Meanwhile, the studios clearly are struggling with copy protection in the brave new digital world.

The six major studios got together this fall to form Movielabs, a think-tank that will develop new copy protection schemes for the future delivery of digital and packaged content.

Each studio is contributing “a couple of million” to hire cryptologists and technology experts, said Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, at a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers presentation. It's a sign content holders are taking matters into their own hands rather than relying on advancements from computer and consumer electronics manufacturers for copy-protection solutions, he said.

Fritz Attaway, EVP and Washington general counsel for the Motion Picture Association of America, hailed Movielabs as a major step forward in copy protection. Attaway said Movielabs will create more business opportunities and revenue for the studios and more access for consumers.

“It's a win-win-win situation,” he said, speaking at September's Digital Hollywood Conference in Santa Monica, Calif.

Meanwhile, Sony Pictures and Universal Pictures both have licensed a digital watermarking technology from Verance. Both studios have said they plan to use it in content for home video, pay-per-view, video-on-demand, free TV broadcasts and future formats.

If played in a DVD player that recognizes Verance's patented audio watermark, the player would render an unlicensed or illegally copied disc unplayable, or play the audio in a corrupted manner. It even would work for pirated discs that came from theater camcordings.

Right now, there are no DVD players or computers that can detect the watermark, admitted George Strunk, GM for Verance. But watermarking could be an effective tool as next-generation discs and hardware emerge, he said.

Microsoft Corp. also has licensed Verance's watermark but has yet to announce how it will use it, possibly in new operating systems such as Longhorn, Strunk said.

One of Hollywood's most hated piracy contributors has been illegally copied Academy Award screeners.

The Walt Disney Co. is attempting to put the brakes on that this year. Disney's Oscar screener discs will be enabled with encryption-technology from Cinea, a subsidiary company of Dolby Laboratories. The discs will play only in Cinea-enabled players, 12,000 of which have been distributed to Academy members. Each screener will have an encrypted code unique to each Academy member's machine and will not be playable on any other device.

As for next-generation technology, both Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD camps are on board with the Advanced Access Copy System (AACS). But both groups are awaiting specs from the AACS Licensing Authority before disc production and distribution can begin in earnest.

AACS was designed with mandatory managed copy specifications. That means it will allow for controlled use of digital and physical copies of the content on high-definition discs, so consumers can use their legally purchased goods in a variety of players, such as PCs or portables.

Each studio will decide exactly what the managed copy rights should be for its content.

Blu-ray backers recently took pains to point out that its optional copy protection additions to Blu-ray discs will not interfere with managed copy specifications set out by AACS.

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