Panel: scant gains in war on piracy

Attendees at SMPTE Tech Summit hear of limited success, shifting goals

Saturday’s panel on piracy prevention and countermeasures at the SMPTE Technology Summit on Cinema drew a picture of a movie industry settling into a grim cold war it can win only with a diminished definition of victory.

Introducing the panel, moderator Jim Williams, prexy of Media Strategies and Solutions, laid out the industry’s current goals in the struggle against piracy: First, give legitimate markets a few more days of exclusivity and, second, reduce the quality of pirated versions so the theatrical version is far superior.

Yet the industry is having mixed success achieving even those relatively modest goals.

“We’re not making as much progress as we’d hoped,” said Steve Weinstein, president and CEO of studio-funded consortium MovieLabs, which is working on technical approaches to stopping piracy. “We’re not solving the problem; we’re putting a dent in the problem. It’s worth putting a dent in the problem.” Weinstein noted that proven demand for pirated pics runs to tens of millions of copies per title.

Camcording remains the source of over 95% of movie piracy, according to Mike Robinson, MPAA exec VP, content protection, and most of that is done by less than a dozen organized groups. “We’ve put a lot of energy into reducing the number of camcords that are occurring worldwide,” he said. “In the past four or five years, we’ve seen a steady decline, almost 50%, in the number of video recording camcords that occur.”

Weinstein said that while there are tools being tested that can automatically scan a theater for a camcorder in use, such tools would be another expense for theaters, and “all of these technologies are after-the-fact technologies.” What the industry really wants is a way to jam camcorders, and Weinstein said that while the industry has been working on such a system, nothing has worked.

When Weinstein was asked if the industry had considered paying camcorder makers to include watermark detectors in their products so they would be blocked from recording watermarked content, Weinstein said: “I think there’s some interest. There have been a lot of tries over past years to get other parties interested.”

Much of the panel focused on methods for watermarking movie sound, because if the pirates can obtain a good quality sound recording to marry to camcorded video, that ups the quality of the pirated copy.

Michael Ayers, senior VP of business and legal affairs at Verance, discussed his company’s Cinavia tech, which is now built into all theatrical releases, Sony PlayStation 3 consoles and Blu-ray players.

Cinavia-equipped players shut off when they detect a theatrical watermark on the soundtrack.

PS3 owners accustomed to viewing pirated content hate it, he said, but half of those blocked by Cinavia then purchase the movie through legitimate channels.

“Almost all the research is showing people will turn to revenue-generating events if we can just divert them (from piracy),” said Weinstein. “It’s a friction problem. Can we put enough friction?”

There was a small bit of unalloyed good news in all this. Asked if there was a problem with piracy originating from within exhibitors, Robinson said: “I’ve been with MPAA for six years now, and I can think of two incidents where there was an exhibitor or an employee of a theater involved. It doesn’t happen often.”

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