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Five Questions With Warren Lieberfarb

24 Apr, 2017


Warren Lieberfarb


While he was president of Warner Home Video, Lieberfarb organized and led the TAZ Team that conceived the concept and its key features (including digital security and copy protection); co-developed many of the essential technologies that were included in the standards and specs; and led the commercialization of the digital video disc by gaining mass retail and studio support. He and his team made it happen, and wound up giving the home entertainment industry a gift that 20 years later keeps on giving. Home Media Magazine recently sat down with Lieberfarb for a brief interview about DVD, the current state of the business, and his legacy.

HM: Warren, it’s been 20 years since DVD entered the U.S. marketplace and set into motion a digital revolution that continues to evolve and present the consumer with an ever-increasing array of choice. When the concept for DVD was envisioned, the argument could be made that today’s digital future was foreshadowed: You saw people “renting” movies over the TV for regular viewing, and buying only content they wanted to keep. That’s how this business has evolved, with Netflix streaming for the casual watcher and Blu-ray Disc reserved for new movies people will want to buy and collect.

Lieberfarb: I thought the fundamental reason for households purchasing a movie was less the desire for building collections, but more the ability of every household member to program their viewing, both where and when they wanted, without incurring late charges or making return visits to the video store. Thus, “buying” or “ownership” was built on consumer convenience and the benefit of individuals having programmability/personalization of viewing. My outlook for the future was that the Internet would ultimately be the platform for the transactional movie business with home viewership of theatrical feature films dominantly tied to flat-panel displays and portable viewing tied to PCs … hence, the formation of Movielink.

HM: Did you envision our current “ecosystem,” dominated by Netflix and over-the-top streaming, or did you expect more of a balance?

Lieberfarb: Candidly, I thought that HBO, Showtime and Starz would continue to dominate the delivery of original commercial-free video entertainment … factual and fictional. However, 2010 was a turning point. This was the year that Netflix was able to secure streaming rights to back-catalog theatrical features and TV product from most studios, as well as having access, in the pay-TV window, to Disney and Sony movies, through their sublicense with Vongo (Starz). Netflix’s “2 for 1” offer, along with the quality of their user interface and collaborative filtering, led me to believe they were going to be the game changer in home delivery. It also became apparent that “wholesale” licensing of back catalog to Netflix by the studios, which were divisions of media conglomerates that owned basic and pay networks, would ultimately be curtailed and that Netflix would have to build a capability to source original programming to attract and retain subscribers. I never imagined that Netflix would achieve the size, scale, brand identity and originality that Reed [Hastings], Ted [Sarandos] and their team masterfully accomplished.

HM: It can be argued that DVD opened the door to the whole digital revolution we are seeing today, because it was truly the first digital product consumers had to watch movies, TV shows and other filmed content. Granted, people were familiar with downloading music over the Internet, with Napster, but until DVD came along home video was still centered on the clunky analog videocassette. The launch of DVD also saw issues related to copy protection, with CSS encryption mandated in the specs. What was the significance of that? What advances in encryption, etc. did DVD bring to the table, and how have they influenced today’s encryption debate? 

Lieberfarb: Encryption to protect against copying of high-quality digital video was essential for DVD to be successful, given that a perfect copy would have been available in absence of an effective content security and also to protect against retransmission via PCs and the Internet. “Binding” the movie to the disc such that “bit copies” would not work was another innovation. The passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, with the provision that stipulated that circumvention of encryption was a copyright violation, was another essential building block to assure the security of video. The modification of the Berne Convention on copyright made circumvention not only illegal in the United States, but also most other countries. CSS was designed and adopted when the NSA limited the bit length of encryption to no more than 40 bits … a length that was easily circumvented by pirates. The government regulated this so as to enable it to “hack” so as to protect “national security.” Another issue that limited CSS effectiveness was the absence of compliance testing so as to protect against poor implementations, especially in PC software. This is precisely what led to CSS encryption keys being discovered. AACS gave Hollywood more tools for protection:

• Longer keys, 128 bit, making encryption much more difficult to circumvent. The U.S. government modified its export regulation, thus enabling this more robust encryption to be utilized for Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD.

• “Renewability” so that “discovered” keys can be invalidated, i.e. “revoked,” and new keys issued with new releases. Whereas with CSS, once there was a hack, the keys were permanently available for both past and future content releases.

HM: The quest for a high-definition successor to DVD turned ugly when two rival formats failed to compromise and slugged it out in the market in a brutal format war. Could that war, and should that war, have been avoided? And, if so, how?

Lieberfarb: The format war definitely should have been avoided. There was an urgent need for the motion picture industry to have consensus on a target launch date so as to take advantage of households’ early adoption of HDTV, as well as consensus on optimum data capacity vs. replication costs. The studios had to find a legal means to get their voices heard to achieve consensus. The Hollywood Digital Disc Advisory Committee was the legal vehicle to achieve the same. Unfortunately, it became dormant. The replicators also could have been more active in advocating the optimum solution.

HM: We’d be remiss if we didn’t ask you what you are working on now — and what’s next for you?

Lieberfarb: I am the chairman of Astral Images, a company that has developed algorithmic solutions for mastering for 4K HDR, and am also advising several clients on new apps and sale of motion picture libraries. I’m also taking history courses at UCLA, traveling and enjoying life.

 


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