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10/10/2007
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Consumers Losing In High-Def DVD Copyright Protection Fight

The cat-and-mouse game between hackers and moviemakers may force consumers to continually download firmware updates over the Web like they do for their PCs, industry experts suggest.

In the ongoing battle between Hollywood and film thieves, consumers -- especially early adopters -- are the real losers.

That's the assessment of a sampling of industry experts Wednesday as the latest efforts to stop hackers from copying high definition DVD movies has also made the titles unplayable on some machines.

Last week, News Corp.'s Twentieth Century Fox added to discs in the Blu-ray format a layer of copyright protection technology called BD+, The Wall Street Journal reported. The additional protection was necessary because hackers had recently broken the digital rights management (DRM) software already embedded in Blu-ray DVDs.

On Sunday, the creators of the DRM technology, the Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator, said it had changed the password used to scramble discs to prevent copying of movies in either Blu-ray or the rival format HD-DVD, the Journal reported. Hackers had compromised similar steps taken in April.

While intended to stymie crooks, the new anti-copying weaponry also prevented consumers from playing the new discs. The DVDs with the new password wouldn't play on computers using software from Cyberlink, and two movies released by Fox with BD+ protection, The Day After Tomorrow and Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, wouldn't play properly on some Blu-ray players for TVs, including a model from LG Electronics and two from Samsung Electronics, the Journal said. Samsung said it would have a fix available for customers to download from the Web in a week, and LG said it was working on one as well.

Because there's no foolproof DRM technology, this cat-and-mouse game between hackers and moviemakers is likely to continue for a long time. As a result, early adopters of high-definition players, most of which have Internet connections, will have to get use to downloading firmware updates over the Web, as copyright-protection technology is broken by hackers, experts say. "It's sort of like patching PCs," John Pescatore, analyst for Gartner, told InformationWeek. "You're going to have to get use to patching your Blu-ray or HD-DVD player."

Michael Gartenberg, analyst for JupiterResearch, agreed, saying these kinds of problems will be unavoidable, as long as DRM remains the only means of protection.

"This is the nature of DRM, and the nature of locks in general," he said. "The more you create these types of controls, the greater the likelihood that at some point you're going to lock out the legitimate user."

As a result, mainstream consumers are expected to stay on the sidelines, opting to buy standard DVD players while watching early adopters suffer the headaches. JupiterResearch has seen a slow trend upward in the use of high-definition DVDs, but doesn't expect the pace to change until consumers feel more comfortable about the technology.

"The last thing a consumer wants to deal with is updating the firmware on one of these devices or caring about doing something like that," Gartenberg said.

But DRM technology is still new in the world of high-definition content, and the software will eventually become less of a problem for consumers, Samir Bhavnani, analyst for Current Analysis West, said.

"I think (the latest problems) is more the exception than the general rule," he said. "You'll see better testing of DRM systems before they are deployed."

In the meantime, those brave enough to plunk down several hundred dollars for a new high-definition DVD player should get ready for a bumpy ride. "When you look at how much money it costs to make a movie these days, they (the studios) are going to have to do something to protect their content," Pescatore added.

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