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Software // Enterprise Applications
05:27 PM

Protection From Pirates

Hollywood is looking at digital-rights management, cryptology, and other technologies to help it protect digital cinema from bootleggers.

Fighting piracy is an ongoing struggle for Hollywood, and the move to digital cinema won't eradicate the problem. Encryption can protect the digital files as they're transmitted across networks, but thieves could still sneak into a theater, surreptitiously videotape a digital movie, and then make bootleg copies and sell them.

So the industry is eyeing digital-rights management and cryptology to protect multiple distribution points, from theaters to the Internet to packaged DVDs, against movie pirates.

"There is only one hole to the piracy issue that the studios have not figured out, and that's how to prevent people from taking a camcorder into the theaters to duplicate the movie," says Charles Swartz, executive director and CEO of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California, a research center founded in 1993 to explore the impact of technology on the entertainment industry.

Digital-rights-management software could be the solution. The industry is considering embedding marks into legitimate digital movie files to separate them from the illegal copies, which won't contain the marks.

Commercial digital-rights-management software already exists, and more is on the way. Oracle, for example, is working on digital-rights-management software scheduled for release later this year. But the movie industry also is looking at other options, including industry-standard digital wrappers that provide specific viewing instructions and radio-frequency identification technology, to close the gap a little tighter.

At the Digital Cinema Initiatives LLC, an industry organization set up several years ago by the then-seven major movie studios to develop standards and a business model to transmit and display movies in digital at theaters, executives are hammering out the final details on protecting and securing movie content before releasing specifications that will guide the industry.

The goal is to develop a method to package audio tracks, subtitles, caption files, and more in a media exchange format file, or what the industry calls a "media wrapper," that would then be transmitted with the movie to theaters via fiber networks or satellite. Before sending the file, the raw media is wrapped inside a defined data structure to allow other software applications to understand the content when it's delivered. After the file arrives at the theater and is deposited into a server, it is "unwrapped" by software. Digital-rights-management software accompanies the "media wrapper" to give specific instructions to the theater's digital projectors when to turn on and play the movie.

Digital-rights-management technology currently accompanies movie files that are downloaded to PCs from online sites such as Movielink LLC. When a subscriber rents a movie from its inventory of more than 1,000 titles, an encrypted Microsoft or Real Networks file is transmitted via the Internet to the consumer's computer, along with a license agreement in a digital-rights-management file. The license grants the right for the movie to exist on the consumer's hard drive for 30 days from the time it's downloaded.

The consumer has 24 hours to view the movie before it's deleted by the digital-rights-management software. "It's done with a client application, Movielink Manager written in C++, that's downloaded onto the consumer's computer when the subscriber first signs up to use the service," says David Beddow, Movielink's chief technology officer.

The technology works for rentals, but the process becomes more complicated when sites such as Movielink or cable companies begin selling digital movies that consumers can download to PCs or DVD players. The Wireless Internet for the Mobile Enterprise Consortium research group at the University of California at Los Angeles is investigating hardware and software systems, including one that embeds a radio-frequency identification tag in DVDs and RFID readers in DVD players. The tagged DVDs would play only with RFID-enabled equipment, and when the reader in the DVD player scans the tag, it would connect to an online service to authenticate the DVD.

The research project, which began last year, is in its infancy, says Rajit Gadh, director of the wireless consortium and a professor at UCLA's Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. The RFID system would create a formal, hard lock to protect the content. Step one, however, is to build prototypes of RFID-enabled DVD players and tagged DVDs to test the hardware and the software. "The DVD is a high-speed spinning object, and you don't want to mess up anything encoded on the disk," Gadh says. "We are playing with the headers in the MPEG file, trying to develop special encryption and specific code."

Illustration by Alicia Buelow, photo of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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Digital Force

Continue to the sidebars:
In Focus: One Filmmaker Who Knows How To Go Digital,
and Long-Term Digital Movie Archiving Poses Challenges

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