February 4, 2002 4:00 AM PST

Studios race to choke DVD copying

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An anonymous hacker known online as "Tron" is Hollywood's latest villain.

Tron is the author of a piece of software called SmartRipper, which allows DVDs to be copied fairly easily to a computer hard drive, and from there burned onto recordable DVDs.

So far, it's hardly a threat on the level that Napster once was. But cross Tron and his peers with rapidly falling prices of DVD burners, and it's easy to see why Hollywood executives are nervous.

Movie studios are now racing to find a technology that will keep people from making copies of DVDs, hoping to learn from the misfortunes of the recording industry. A group tasked with finding a way to block the copying says it hopes to have a fix by the end of the year. But the studios are in a race against time; DVD burners without anti-copying protections are flying off retail shelves.

"The sooner (we finish), the better," said Brad Hunt, chief technology officer for the Motion Picture Association of America, which is a part of the group selecting the technology. "Our enforcement efforts are good, but they're not perfect. To preserve the format, we need (these protections) to be out there."

The studios' attempt to close the door on DVD copying is just one push in a broad effort aimed at ensuring Hollywood avoids the piracy that has plagued the recording industry for the past several years. Because movies are much bigger files and because DVDs already have some copy protection included, the film industry has so far escaped much of the dangers posed by Napster and latter-day Net file-swapping programs such as Morpheus or Kazaa.

Still, copies of first-run movies or DVDs are increasingly a part of the file-trading world, a clear sign of growing levels of video "ripping," or copying. The only thing that is preventing Hollywood from seeing Napster-like trading volumes is the relative scarcity of high-speed Net connections, which are critical for downloading large movie files.

Building roadblocks
Movie studios have already moved once to block DVD copying. When the format was originally released in the mid-1990s, executives worried that consumers would be able to make perfect digital copies of movies. Industry projections at that time forecast that DVD players that included the ability to record to a blank disc would be in the market by the end of 1999.

Video's alphabet soup

CPTWG: Content Protection Technology Working Group. An industry forum, including studios, consumer electronics and technology companies, which discusses anti-piracy issues.

CSS: Content Scramble System. Encrypts DVD movies to guard against piracy.

DeCSS: A software program that decrypts DVDs for Linux computers. Can be used in copying movies illegally.

DVD: Digital Versatile Disc. The newest standard for video

DVD-CCA: DVD Copy Control Association. Manages the CSS licenses. Sued people who posted DeCSS online.

DVD-R: The most common recordable DVD format. DVD-RW, DVD+R and DVD-RAM also are in the market.

Well before that time, studios, consumer electronics makers and technology companies created a group called the Copy Protection Technology Working Group (CPTWG). Collectively they created the standard called Content Scrambling System (CSS), which encrypts the content on DVDs so it can only be viewed on licensed players such as those sold at Circuit City or Wal-Mart.

For several years, that worked well enough. But in mid-1999, a 16-year-old Norwegian hacker named Jon Johansen began distributing a software program called DeCSS. Designed to let DVDs run on Linux-based machines, it also unscrambled the movies on DVDs so they could be copied to hard drives and distributed online.

After long court battles, the movie industry has succeeded in having that program declared illegal, although appeals are pending. But several other programs, including SmartRipper, have sprung up in the meantime.

In response, the industry is developing a new layer of defense.

Technical plans aren't final yet. But essentially a watermark would insert instructions directly into the movies that would tell DVD players and recorders whether a movie could be copied. If it was copied illegally, the movie could not be played on hardware that included the watermark-recognition technology. These instructions would theoretically be carried with the movie even if it was copied using a program such as SmartRipper.

The idea is to persuade consumer electronics companies to include this protection inside their products as a condition of having access to the rest of the series of complicated technology components that make a DVD player run. To decode a DVD in the first place, for example, a company might have to include the ability to act on the watermark.

The plan would work on two levels. A DVD burner that recognizes a "don't copy" watermark would simply refuse to burn the copy. Similarly, a DVD player that is loaded with an unencrypted movie would look for the watermark. If it finds a "don't copy" stamp on a copied DVD, it would refuse to play the movie.

Group effort
Consumer electronics companies, which are part of the industry groups working on the issue, say they're ready to comply as long as the new technology doesn't throw too many roadblocks in front of consumers, preventing them from creating home networks to beam their movies around a house, for example.

But some watchdog groups are less sanguine about the plans.

"If you want DVD watermarking to do what they say it's going to do, it's hard to get around the fact that they'll have to mandate this in all PCs," said Fred von Lohmann, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Whether that happens in Congress or happens with a carrot and stick inside the market, "that's where we get concerned," he added.

For the studios, the clock is ticking. The industry has been debating watermarks for years, but without a final decision on video content.

Battles over standards for DVD recording technology have kept burners out of the mainstream market long past 1999, but prices have now dropped below the $500 mark for the first time and are heading further south quickly. By next year, analyst firm Jon Peddie Research predicts, 15 million burners will be sold.

Each unit sold before the watermarking technology is in place is a potential problem from the studios' point of view. These devices, whether players or burners, won't recognize watermarks and could still be used to rip and burn movies.

But as long as the price of DVD burners stays high, the movie industry has time to work. That's likely months, or even a year--but it's not long.

DVD burners "aren't an impulse buy," said P.J. McNealy, research director for GartnerG2, a division of the Gartner research firm. "They have some time. It's not a big window of opportunity, but it's a window."

 

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