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High-Def's Holy Grail: Superior Copy Protection

8 Apr, 2005 By: Erik Gruenwedel

Much has been said about the improved picture quality and increased disc capacity of next-generation, high-definition discs. To consumer electronics manufacturers and studios backing HD-DVD or competitor Blu-ray Disc, however, copyright protection and digital rights management (DRM) is just as important.

In today’s anywhere, anytime digital entertainment environment, DRM also must allow users to transport digital content between devices, from a home network onto portable media players and back, without the threat of piracy.

To achieve this media nirvana, both sides appear to be jointly focused on Advanced Access Content System (AACS), cross-industry copy-protection software under development by IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba, Warner Bros. and the Walt Disney Company.

With several of these companies supporting opposing high-def formats, the cooperation on copyright protection software is a credible example for the potential that the two sides may yet find a compromise, as hinted in recent comments by Sony’s president-elect Ryoji Chubachi, who expressed interest in the concept of finding a middle ground with rival HD-DVD.

Digital Maginot line
Using an increased encryption standard (the scrambling of data into a code that is unreadable to anyone who does not have the key that deciphers it) and assorted other firewalls, AACS is designed to prevent the illegal copying and transfer of content between unlicensed devices and networks.

The technology, experts say, is considered the most secure available on the market. The increased 128-bit encryption standard creates a code that is many times longer than the 56-bit encryption standard found on a DVD. The longer the code, the harder it is to break.

“If you look at the sheer number of keys available — 2 to the 128th bit power — that alone can keep a computer busy literally for years trying to hack it just for one key,” said Andy Parsons, SVP, industrial solutions business group, Pioneer Electronics. “It is much more powerful in the sense that there are so many possible combinations that it is impossible for the computer to guess them all.”

Interestingly, Macrovision, one of the pioneers in content protection, said it doesn’t plan to introduce copy-protection software for the next generation of high-def discs until the format struggle between Blu-ray and HD-DVD has been decided.

In an analysts call early last month, Macrovision CEO Bill Krepick said the firm was talking to customers about high def, but cautioned against developing anti-piracy software against an unknown culprit.

“Irrespective of which format is successful, whatever encryption system exists will most likely be cracked like CSS, and you will need some type of antiripper technology,” Krepick said. “It will take a while to develop.”

Portable media
The success of high-def discs will be indirectly proportional to the market penetration of HDTV and home networks, experts say. Content providers and CE companies recognize the importance interoperable media devices — including the laptop, digital video recorder, cell phone and PDA — will play in whether HD achieves market acceptance.

“What we learned from DVD is that a fairly strict go/no-go [copyright protection and DRM] policy had some obvious limitations for consumers,” Pioneer’s Parsons said. “The content providers have realized we are working in a different environment, with people who wish to make a copy of content they have for a portable media device.”

The Blu-ray Disc Association counts more than 115 member companies, many of whom also support HD-DVD.

A typical home network might have the content source running in one area of the home while allowing users to watch it on different devices throughout the home. Content providers understand they must allow this sort of functionality in addition to downloading content from the Internet, according to Parsons.

“These are all new distribution channels they have not had in the past,” he said.Indeed, if a user wants to go over to his friend’s house and burn 10 copies, that would not be a legitimate use of the content. But if the user wants to make a copy for his portable media device and the content provider had given permission for that use, he would be able to do that.

“The idea is to not only make it stronger [against piracy], but also to give people permission to use it in ways that greatly reduce the incentive to crack it in the first place,” Parsons said. “If you are going to have a home network, you have to have devices that know how to communicate with other devices and that separate permissions granted by individual software and hardware devices.”

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