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Techies’ quick fixes

Copying videotape cumbersome, other options available

Consider it a low-tech compromise for a high-tech problem.

Oscar campaigners are breathing a tentative sigh of relief after the MPAA decided last week to allow studios to send out VHS videocassettes of their pics to the Academy’s 6,000 members.

In order to receive the tapes, Academy members will have to sign a pledge not to allow the screeners out of their home or to pass them on to relatives or friends. If they do, they face being expelled from the org as well as legal action from the copyright holders.

That’s it, however.

Whether the studios want to copyprotect their tapes is up to the studios. They must decide it individually.

Industryites had speculated that the studios would encode the videotapes with a physical serial number on the screener itself and an invisible watermark on the film (essentially a fingerprint) that would make the videocassette traceable back to its recipient should it be found on the Internet or elsewhere.

Additional copy protection software from Macrovision would make any copy of a screener unwatchable by drastically altering the video’s image.

The watermarking and copy protection software would be significant in the case of Oscar screeners because in previous years, the thousands of VHS tapes and DVDs sent out did not feature any copy-protection at all.

“Members of the MPAA initiated and embraced this in the past, but sending out huge numbers of screeners without suitable protection produced new cautions, new dangers in the digital environment that rendered this practice a severe threat to all who work in the film community and required some adjustments,” said MPAA prexy and CEO Jack Valenti and AMPAS prexy Frank Pierson in a joint statement.

The basic idea behind the choice of the tapes is this: Because DVDs are digital by nature, the films on them can easily be copied onto a blank DVD or onto a computer and then loaded onto the Internet. In other words, if it can be played on a computer, it can always be copied. Videocassettes cannot.

Copying a videotape is more time-consuming, requiring more steps in the duplication process and also more hardware.

Considering how quickly the studios are looking to reproduce and mail out their screeners, the encoded tapes aren’t expected to require any additional time to produce than a DVD during the duplication process.

Technicolor, the largest manufacturer of consumer DVDs and videocassettes for the studios, says that it takes on average two weeks to turn around a screener order.

What will take additional time is linking up each tape’s serial code to each person that will get the Oscar screener, creating an administrative headache.

While videocassettes will be sent out this year, the studios will have several more high-tech options to choose from for next year’s Oscar race — especially if Academy members start demanding DVDs over VHS tapes. They include:

  • Watermarked DVDs which, like this year’s batch of tapes, will allow studios to track the film back to its recipient should it end up on the Internet or elsewhere.

  • Services such as Flexplay that will allow voters to watch a movie on a DVD for a limited amount of time (possibly as little as eight hours). After that, the DVD can no longer be played.

  • And online alternatives such as Movielink.com and CinemaNow.com, where users can watch a movie on their computer for 24 hours after it’s downloaded and activated. After that, it can no longer be viewed unless downloaded again.

Disney’s MovieBeam cable-based video-on-demand service may also be an option.

The sites could change the amount of time viewers are given.

All three services feature films from all of the major studios.

The alternatives have their drawbacks, however.

Despite the more than half-dozen copy protection technologies available for DVDs, the discs can still be easily copied with off-the-shelf sotware packages and an inexpensive DVD burner.

Flexplay’s technology may keep screeners out of the wrong hands, but the films could still be copied during the short window viewers are given to view them.

And it’s also unlikely that many older Academy voters are eager to download movies anytime soon.

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