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Loser: DVD Copy Protection, Take 2
By Tekla S. Perry
The next generation of technology won't have a Hollywood ending

ILLUSTRATION: DAVID PLUNKERT
In 1999, a 16-year-old Norwegian high school student took on the motion-picture industry and won. The teenager, Jon Johansen, wrote software that decrypted the Content Scrambling System (CSS) that rearranges the bits on prerecorded DVDs to prevent the discs' being played back on unauthorized hardware. Until Johansen wrote his software utility, which he called DeCSS, you could copy the bits from a DVD to your computer hard drive, but because those bits were scrambled, you couldn't play a movie from those copied bits.

Johansen's DeCSS soon reached every corner of the globe, thanks to the Internet, and prompted a host of legal battles. In the end, Norwegian judges ruled his actions legal, but U.S. judges ruled the distribution of the software illegal. Nevertheless, anybody who wants to make a copy of a DVD can now do so easily, much to the dismay of the entertainment industry. It is not clear whether such copying is done legally under copyright law, but no individuals have been prosecuted for making copies for their own use.

With manufacturers about to unveil a new generation of DVD players and discs, moviemakers now see a rare opportunity to get the horse back into the barn and lock the door tight. So, this past July, two entertainment companies joined with six electronics manufacturers and chip makers to announce the creation of the Advanced Access Content System (AACS), the copy protection scheme designed to keep future generations safe from pirated DVDs. The specification was due by year-end 2004, and products incorporating it are slated to appear by year-end 2005.

Backers of the protection method are betting that AACS technology will finally thwart unauthorized copying of DVDs while allowing consumers to distribute movies legitimately over networks within their homes, play them on a variety of devices (standard televisions, portable movie players, and laptop computers), and store them on home media servers. "We wouldn't be investing our time otherwise," says Michael Ripley, the chairman of the AACS alliance's technical working group.

But critics of the technology say it is bound to fail in achieving its most important objective—blocking wholesale pirating of DVDs—and it may irritate consumers if the promised in-home distribution isn't quickly forthcoming and easy to use. The AACS project "doesn't make very much sense," says Seth Schoen, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "The commercial copyright infringers in Southeast Asia that burn billions of counterfeit discs will not be deterred by this." AACS

Goal: To develop a specification for copy protection of next-generation DVDs why it's a loser: It won't deter commercial copyright infringers

Organization: AACS License Administrator

Number of people: Not available

Budget: Not specified

Efforts that bring together industries with competing interests are challenging at the least and have often broken down acrimoniously. Witness the failure of the Secure Digital Music Initiative, an attempt to bring watermarking technology to digital music. Also keep in mind the different goals the entertainment and electronics industries certainly have. Movie moguls would prefer to make all copying impossible. You want two copies of a movie? Buy two. By contrast, electronics firms would prefer relatively unrestricted copying, because being able to move videos you already own to new devices (such as media servers or handheld players) helps drive sales of those devices.

"Any of these [electronics and entertainment] consortiums runs the risk of collapsing under its own weight," Michael McGuire, research director of the media team for GartnerG2, in San Jose, Calif., told IEEE Spectrum.

The AACS group was founded by IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Panasonic (Matsushita Electric), Sony, Toshiba, Disney, and Warner Bros. Studios. The alliance is optimistic, says Panasonic representative Richard Doherty. "So far, it's going very well, though discussions are spirited at times," he adds.

"We are confident that AACS technology will be part of the next generation of content on optical media," declares AACS's Ripley, who is a senior staff engineer at Intel Corp., in Santa Clara, Calif.

The key to the spirit of compromise is an agreement that the AACS specification will allow consumers to move the data on an optical disc to the various devices they own, including video servers and portable video players, either directly or via a home network. In all the scenarios developed by the AACS alliance, that data would exist on the disc in encrypted form. It would stay encrypted when transferred to other devices and would be decrypted by those devices. The details of this portability have not been announced, but the technological underpinnings are expected to be included when the first version of the copy protection specification is released.

Once products do ship, potential crackers—including teens in basements, academics, and large-scale pirates—will undoubtedly tackle this new encryption challenge. Some details of the specification were apparently still under discussion as this article went to press, including where on the disc the encryption codes will be physically stored.


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