DVD copy safeguard needs backup

WASHINGTON — With DVD use growing rapidly worldwide — and computer hackers becoming more and more brazen in developing programs that circumvent copy protection — plans to bolster disc integrity have taken on a new urgency.

The DVD Content Control Assn. — the industry consortium that licenses the increasingly leaky Content Scrambling System (CSS) used to encrypt DVDs against illegal copying, is stepping up efforts to plug the holes, issuing a Notice to Interested Parties seeking proposals for a technology that would add a layer of protection to the discs.

While the studios have had success in court challenging the first computer program written to decrypt DVDs, known as DeCSS, dozens of others are widely available on the Net and more are being added weekly.

Hacked DVDs have become a source for the growing number of movie files illegally posted on the Internet, and widely traded on dozens of different Web sites.

According to Boston-based consulting firm Viant, as many as 350,000 to 400,000 feature-length movies are being illegally downloaded each day, with estimates putting the number as high as 1 million a day by the end of 2001. And that’s not counting porn downloads.

So the industry is trying to come up with a backup for CSS — which works by scrambling the data stored on a DVD so that it can be be played back on machines with specially licensed decoder chips only. In order to obtain a license, player manufacturers have to agree to certain rules, such as not providing a digital output on the machine that would allow the movie to be copied to another device or uploaded onto the Internet.

If a hacker manages to disable the encryption system, however, there’s no other protection in place to prevent the movie from being copied.

What the DVD content control org hopes to find, according to prexy John Hoy, is a “hidden code” system that would embed anti-copy instructions into a movie stored on the disc. In theory, all digital recording devices would be equipped to recognize those instructions and refuse to copy the movie.

Even if someone did manage to copy it, the hidden codes would go along for the ride, presumably preventing further dubs, and providing investigators with a trail of digital footprints to trace the illegal dubs back to their source.

But there are problems. For one thing, digital recording devices today are not required to respond to such a copy-protection system. It would take an act of Congress to mandate that all devices sold in the U.S. carry the proper circuitry.

Coming up with a system that would not render the current crop of 15 million DVD players in the U.S. obsolete is also imperative. “You could design a very robust (copy-protection) system if you could start from scratch,” Hoy says.

Past attempts to reach an agreement on a supplemental standard broke down when hardware- and software-makers couldn’t agree on a single standard.

“You can’t do something that adds $40 or $50 to the price of a DVD player,” Hoy says. “The hardware companies would never go along with that.”

Getting the studios to agree on a single system also could prove difficult.

“Different companies have different goals,” Hoy says. “Some want to get something done as quickly as possible; others have concerns like cost and compatibility.”

Another area of disagreement within the industry is whether any new technology should try to bolster the different regional coding systems. For instance, DVDs released in the U.S. are already encoded to be unplayable in other territories, such as the U.K., where release dates often lag behind the U.S. by several months.

But disabling the system is relatively easy — many European hardware retailers provide the proper chips right along with the machines — which has led to the widespread exporting of discs from the U.S. into other territories.

Those sorts of differences helped scuttle earlier efforts to come up with improved copy protection. But with the integrity of DVD content under global assault, it may be time to abandon parochial interests.

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