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MPAA Ban Battle Latest in Copy-Thwarting War

23 Oct, 2003 By: Erik Gruenwedel


The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in part reversed the Sept. 30 decision to ban the use of video screeners.

In a joint announcement with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the MPAA authorized studios to send out specially marked screeners in the VHS format to authorized guild and academy members and press who annually determine the Academy Awards. DVDs are still banned.

Under terms of the one-year agreement, those authorized to receive screeners will have to personally sign for them and pledge not to transfer the content to friends, relatives and third parties.

In addition, the MPAA will forward the name, home or work address to studios of all screener recipients so that allegations of “piracy can be traced back its source.”

The deal grants member studios -- Walt Disney Co., Sony Pictures Entertainment, MGM, Paramount Pictures Corp., 20th Century Fox Film Corp., Universal Studios and Warner Bros. -- final discretion whether to participate in the agreement.

“The battle against piracy has to take precedence over everything,” said MPAA president/CEO Jack Valenti, in a statement. “There can be no misread of the purpose of this initiative, which is the long-term health of this industry for films large and small.”

Crying Piracy Wolf?
The near month-long tug of war between the MPAA and opponents to the ban underscores Hollywood's ongoing piracy concerns.

But when Valenti recently went before the U.S. Senate decrying legislative attempts to ban technological mandates that combat DVD piracy, some media watchdogs said he crossed the line.

“If [the MPAA] waves the flag of piracy around enough maybe people will give them things without much critical examination,” said Fred von Lohmann, senior intellectual property attorney with San Francisco-based civil liberties group The Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Lohmann said the trade organization's anti-piracy lobbying efforts and myriad license deals with hardware and software manufacturers have helped it maintain a lucrative stranglehold on content while stifling technological improvements, including DVD players with digital connections and a video jukebox.

“These devices don't exist because to build a new feature [into a device] you have to get Hollywood's permission,” Lohmann said. “And they're not giving it away.”

The MPAA, on its Web site, counters that the stance is necessary because of $3.5 billion lost annually from piracy involving DVD, VCD and videotape. The organization estimates that up to 600,000 copies of films in all formats are stolen every day, and the problem is “getting progressively worse.”

CSS: A Maginot Line?
Currently most DVD content is protected from illegal copying by Content Scrambling System (CSS), encryption software that stops most piracy since the majority of DVD players on the market are programmed to read it.

In 1999, Norway teenager Jon Johansen posted on the Internet the code to DeCSS, software that breaks the CSS encryption and allows the reading of an encrypted DVD.

Similar to opening Pandora's box, numerous versions of DeCSS quickly circulated on the Internet.

The MPAA and the DVD Copy Control Assn. filed data-theft charges against Johansen, of which he was acquitted in January by a three-judge panel in Oslo. The case is currently being retried.

In August, the California Supreme Court upheld a preliminary injunction against a U.S. defendant who had posted DeCSS on his Web site.

Regardless, numerous circumvention software programs such as 321 Studios' DVD X Copy are available in most electronics retail stores.

“Copyright protection [as it stands today] is completely useless,” said attorney Von Lohmann, who questions the need in light of ongoing strong sales of DVD players and content.

“DVD continues to sell like hot cakes,” he said.

The Empire Fights Back
Aware of the music industry's ongoing battle against piracy and the fact that a similar scenario awaits Hollywood in the next several years, copy protection companies such as SunnComm and Macrovision plan to launch DVD protection software in the fourth quarter.

Phoenix-based SunnComm Technologies will begin beta testing software later this year that prevents illegal copying of DVD content to a blank disc, according to president/CEO Peter Jacobs.

He says a major film studio “is knocking on our door” with interest. “They don't believe they have a more robust anti-copying technology in place yet,” Jacobs said.

SunnComm's MediaMax CD-3 protection software, which German record label BMG incorporated into its CD releases in the U.S., took a hit earlier this month when a Princeton graduate student announced on his Web site that the software could be circumvented simply by holding down the shift key on a computer keyboard.

SunnComm responded by filing a lawsuit against the student.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Macrovision, which some observers say has a monopoly on analog-based copy protection software, will launch upgraded software in the fourth quarter that features digital rights management (DRM) technology.

“We have relationships with several influential companies in the DRM space, but copyright holders' problems are not just digital, they're also analog,” said Carol Flaherty, SVP worldwide sales in the entertainment technologies division. “The world is still primarily analog based. You have to have protection for whatever devices are still dominant in the marketplace.”

Last week, San Diego-based Verance Corp. announced that it had entered into a multiyear deal with Universal Pictures to provide audiovisual watermarking on DVD and VHS home video product, theatrical releases, pay-per-view, video–on-demand, and TV broadcasts.

Finally, a German electronics retailer has pulled copy-protection circumvention software from its shelves after deciding not to contest an Oct. 6 filing by Macrovision that cited a new German law that bans the sale of such devices.

Size Matters
The rise in DVD piracy is largely dependent on the evolution of stronger PCs, the proliferation of broadband, and expanded hard drives.

Without these improvements, transporting DVD content remains an arduous task.

The typical movie DVD uses up to 9GB of data, which can't be burned to a CD that holds 650MB of data. In addition, the average PC hard drive holds about 18GB, or the equivalent of two feature movies.

“Movie files are one heck of a lot larger than music files,” said Flaherty. “It takes a lot of memory to handle that.”

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