To serve up, and protect

Screeners still risky business as pirates stay ahead of tech curve

The studios, the MPAA and the rest of the filmmaking community might have reached a compromise solution to the screener ban, but the hubbub associated with piracy will continue well beyond this year’s awards fray.

With myriad technologies under development to protect movies being illegally copied, one question that remains is: How did it come to this?

The answer may simply be that none of the emerging copy-protection schemes — most notably in the area of DVDs — can keep up with the burgeoning proliferation of DVD burners worldwide and the software that allows users to quickly and easily strip away encryption.

“This is not a sudden action on behalf of the studios,” says an official for a top firm specializing in copy protection. Under nondisclosure agreement with the majors, her company is among a number of computer technology firms, consumer electronics makers and content suppliers that have been working for the past six years — unsuccessfully, so far — to agree on a standard for digital watermarking.

“We’re bogged down right now,” she says. “You’d be hard pressed to do it in time for the Academy Awards this year.”

Although the issue of DVD screeners came to a head this year, piracy had emerged as a serious concern late in 2002.

In January 2003, for example, the U.K.’s Federation Against Copyright Theft seized 10,000 bootleg DVD copies of New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” — all of which had been copied in Asia from awards screeners mailed out just a month earlier.

Lacking the generational decay that used to mark the typically ham-fisted duplication of VHS screeners, eBay visitors could, for $30, purchase a pristine copy of “Two Towers” with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound — several months before the legitimate DVD hit shelves.

In fact, with DVD quickly usurping VHS as the packaged media of choice for screeners, the source material for bootleg copies has never been better, says one official for a top replication facility.

“You go into a theater, take a digital camera, it sounds like shit, and it looks like shit,” says one DVD manufacturer. “You copy a DVD screener, and it has Dolby 5.1 sound, and it looks great.”

And copying DVDs has never been easier.

The average screener disc has the same copy protection as a commercial DVD found in Wal-Mart. However, penetration of DVD burners grew significantly in 2003 and is expected to exceed 10 million worldwide next year. Meanwhile, cheap software that strips away the Macrovision and CSS protection found on most DVDs can be found in most consumer electronics chains.

Copy protection experts say watermarking — protection embedded into the very digital source code of a disc — would provide the most hacker-proof deterrent. Such watermarking could be “forensic,” allowing investigators to track down the specific screener used to make copies. Technicolor is developing just such a technology.

Universal, meanwhile, has already announced deployment of an audio watermark, intended to muddle the soundtrack of anyone trying to copy a film in a theater using a digital camcorder or clandestinely burning a DVD.

Watermarking could also, for example, be used to disable recording and playback of a disc unless the user entered a password.

“We’ll support any encryption technology Hollywood comes up with,” says Jack Guedj, VP for Cirrus Logic, a top producer of chips for DVD recorders.

However, since the ability to recognize such watermarking has to be built into these chips, such a solution wouldn’t provide protection among the recorders already out in the marketplace, he notes.

Quick fix

In recent weeks, at least half a dozen copy-protection methodologies have been put forth that could be implemented sooner.

Among the most intriguing is Flexplay Technologies’ limited-play EZ-D format. Currently being market-tested by Disney as an alternative to rental DVDs, the EZ-D discs play on standard DVD players but become oxidized to the point of being unreadable hours after being exposed to oxygen.

According to company CEO Alan Blaustein, Flexplay has proposed using the technology in screeners to the MPAA, as well as several signatory and nonsignatory studios.

Such technology would limit the piracy damage done by screeners being passed around after Academy members are done watching them. Blaustein says EZ-D is available for use in screeners this year. However, since a still-live EZ-D can be copied like any other DVD, it would be far from foolproof.

Meanwhile, Internet video-on-demand service CinemaNow has pitched its services to Warner Bros., MGM, Fox and Disney. “The concept is pretty simple,” explains CEO Curt Marvis. “We’d create a password-protected area on CinemaNow that Academy members could access with username and password.”

Of course, as even Marvis concedes, relatively few people at this point have the computer equipment and Internet bandwidth to download and comfortably watch feature-length movies.

And besides being skittish about making available online films that haven’t even had their theatrical runs yet, it’s questionable as to whether studios would want their films screened on computer monitors.

“Our point of view is that this is something that can be deployed as a solution now and can be enhanced as more and more people get movies this way,” Marvis notes.

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