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Consumers, the DVD and copy protection

Fri, 01/31/1997 - 7:00pm
Wendell Bailey
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The DVD can play (and in certain models, record) video on a disk that is the same size and appearance as a CD-ROM. This new device can hold a complete movie in digital form. It is expected that DVDs will be sold as stand-alone consumer devices, as well as ancillary computer devices to be used like CD-ROM players.

Most of the technical work on the basic design has already been accomplished by various companies that are in the consumer electronics industry. What apparently remains to be done is to develop the tools and techniques that are needed to make sure that this device does not allow the indiscriminate copying of protected intellectual property.

Late last year, the consumer electronics industry, represented by CEMA/EIA and the group that represents the Hollywood studios, the MPAA (Motion Picture Artists Association), began to appreciate that, as the world became more digital, the possibility for really good (actually, perfect) copies of almost any copyrighted work would soon be in the hands of the average consumer. They also realized that this would lead to an irresistible temptation to make hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of copies for friends and neighbors. These concerns prompted the aforementioned two associations to jointly develop a strategy to deal with the approaching digital-to-digital age. This group effort of the CPTWG to tackle the issue of digital video recording is the outcome.

Intellectual property in a digital world

The cable television industry also has concerns about the rights of the intellectual property owners that we do business with, as well as our own rights in those cases where we make copyrighted works. What will become of those rights in a world where every video signal is in a digital form, and everyone has a digital video recorder at home? If this future scenario was all we had to concern ourselves with, the cable industry might have left the chore of working with a group such as this to those of our members who are more directly concerned with this issue. But the two groups that began this effort also recognized that, before it becomes commonplace for programmers to send digital images to consumers who possess digital recording devices, programmers will send their digital offerings out into the ether only to encounter the lowly analog recording device, albeit aided by something known as a "digital interface device." This is the same device that we in the cable industry know as a digital set-top box. In addition to concerns about our set-top boxes, it was also decided that a technical standard for protecting copyrighted works would not, all by itself, be adequate to the ultimate task. There was apparently a need for a companion piece of legislation that would dictate how and under what circumstances products that could make digital copies of digital works could exist.

Analog protection system

The MPAA came to the NCTA and asked that we attend these meetings. It has, as they say, been an education. First, I have learned a lot about digital signals, DVD manufacturing, computer operating system limitations, digital watermarking, data hiding and something called "Hamming codes."

One of the things that I find fascinating and troubling at the same time is the idea that every set-top box that takes digital in and has an analog output would be subject to a digital code that would have the right to turn on an analog protection system (APS). This would raise the cost of digital boxes and allow someone else to run our meter, because the maker of this device has been shopping around the idea that when the APS is on, you owe him a performance fee.

Another issue that I think is important is regional coding. At our most recent meeting, the group spent an inordinate amount of time on the subject of regional codes. For those who have not followed this saga, regional coding is a technique that will mark each DVD disk that is produced with a certain geographic identifier that will make it unplayable in any compliant DVD that is not coded with the same geographic code.

What this means is that if you buy a DVD player in the U.S., and a friend from Europe sends you a hot, new title from another region, you can't play it on your new machine. The reason that is given by those who want this regional restriction implemented is that they (Hollywood producers) want to control the release times and venues of their product. Fair enough. I only wonder what sort of annoying inconveniences could result from this action.

Because we work in an industry that takes its lumps from what we perceive as necessary business practices, only to find out that we regularly hack off our customers, I would urge caution when weighing the value of this level of control against the simple desire of a regular, non-larcenous type who simply wants to watch a movie from his native land.

Not making this calculation carefully can and will come back to haunt you every time.

Contact Wendell Bailey at: wbailey@prodigy.com

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