New gizmos may outsmart the pirates

Flexplay tech, watermarked DVDs could slow thieves

HOLLYWOOD — It’s easier than ever to copy a DVD. It also may be easier than Jack Valenti would lead you to believe to deter piracy.

But, of course, the pricetag on that deterrence is daunting — at least, until the technology is widely in use.

The price of hardware that duplicates DVDs has dropped. Software that can decrypt or copy DVDs is readily available on the Internet and at major retail stores and, once it’s on a computer, easily posted on the Internet.

The MPAA does have a reason to worry about the mailing of Oscar screeners.

Last year, MGM, for example, found its DVDs had been duplicated illegally three to four days after they were sent out; they were available to the masses as far away as Asia.

And consider this:

  • DVD burners, devices that enable consumers to copy DVDs using their home computers, cost as little as $150. That’s far less than the thousands of dollars they cost a year or two ago.

  • DVD-copying software such as Tritton’s DVD CopyWare and 321 Studios’ DVD X Copy XPRESS, can be purchased online or from retailers such as CompUSA, starting at $50.

Packaging promises the software products “allow you to make high-quality backup copies of all your DVD movies” with copies made in less than an hour. That compares to the two hours or more it can take to illegally download a movie on the Internet.

The MPAA is suing the software makers, but as of last week, the products were still widely available for purchase.

  • Even without off-the-shelf software, Internet users can download a computer code known as DeCSS that enables DVD movies to be decoded and played on personal computers.

  • Microsoft last week bowed a new version of its Windows XP Media Center software that turns a PC into a device that can play music or movies, record TV shows and display photos, with commands issued from a remote control.

Because the software enables users to record a movie from a DVD or a TV channel onto a computer’s hard drive and then burn it onto a DVD or post it on the Internet for the masses to view, the threat of piracy could become more serious for content owners.

Many of the Oscar screener DVDs mailed out last year were not copy-protected. But the technology exists to protect them.

Studios have been considering two potential anti-piracy methods — either watermarking DVDs or using a limited-viewing technology from Flexplay.

Although discussions have taken place, it has been difficult getting every studio to agree on a system.

DVD mastering facilities, such as Technicolor, Deluxe, Cinram, Sonopress and Warner Bros.’ WAMO, have developed a watermarking method (essentially a fingerprint) that makes a DVD traceable to its original recipient, should the film be found on the Internet or elsewhere.

Technicolor has developed a similar security coding system for use in theaters to prevent the videotaping of films. Studios already have rolled out the technology on 40 titles this year.

Technicolor says its technology, while still officially in development, could easily be available to any studio that wanted to use it for this year’s Oscar screeners.

“The technology exists, and it’s ready to roll out,” says a Technicolor spokeswoman. “We continue to work on cutting-edge technologies that assist the studios and help solve the industrywide problem of piracy.”

At the same time, other ventures, including companies like Flexplay, have developed anti-pass-along products that limit the viewability of a DVD to as little as eight hours. After that, the DVD can no longer be played.

Disney and MGM already have used Flexplay’s service.

“Our technology is real,” says Alan Blaustein, CEO of Flexplay Technologies. “It’s in the marketplace. It’s a viable alternative for screeners.”

The MPAA met with Flexplay and determined that the company’s technology can keep discs out of the wrong hands but is not a defense against piracy, considering pics could still be copied (although hackers would have to move quickly in an eight-hour window) and end up online.

The MPAA similarly said that while watermarking is attractive, it would only help track down culprits who have pirated pics, while doing little to prevent the crime from being committed in the first place.

Microsoft is hard at work on creating a standard to secure content recorded through a personal video recorder, as well as other technologies such as watermarking to track the movement of recorded films that end up online.

However, one obstacle remains for the studios: cost.

To watermark 40,000 DVDs for one film would cost a studio on average $420,000, studio sources say. One watermarked DVD would cost from $7 to $14. Compare that to $1 or less without the added anti-piracy technology.

On top of that, studio staffers would have to allot staff resources to coordinate their mailing lists and figure out who exactly would receive each DVD, creating an administrative headache.

Valenti’s decision is said to have been unexpected for the studios, but it’s an appealing one considering that with a ban, the studios no longer have to worry about those additional costs or figuring out which anti-piracy technology is better. Everyone would be on the same playing field.

But perhaps because of the firestorm the MPAA decision to ban screeners has caused, Valenti is considering alternative online methods to combat piracy.

These include using companies like Movielink or Cinema Now to deliver screeners electronically to viewers. Individuals would be given a password to access titles via their computer. The sites allow pics to be viewed for a limited amount of time.

However, encouraging older Oscar voters to log on to the Web to watch a movie may be difficult, especially considering how few homes currently have broadband connections.

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