New copy-proof DVDs on the way?

Hackers broke through the antipiracy wrappers on DVDs years ago. Macrovision says it can now plug that hole--mostly.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
Macrovision on Tuesday released a new DVD copy-protection technology in hopes of substantially broadening its role in Hollywood's antipiracy effort.

The content-protection company is pointing to the failure of the copy-proofing on today's DVDs, which was broken in 1999. Courts have ordered that DVD-copying tools be taken off the market, but variations of the software remain widely available online.

Macrovision executives said that even if it's not perfect, the new RipGuard DVD technology can prevent much of the copying done with such tools and can help bolster studios' DVD sales.

"Encryption standards either work or they don't," said Adam Gervin, Macrovision's senior director of marketing, "Now the cat's out of the bag. (DVD sales) are going to be one of the main sources of revenue for Hollywood for a long time, so why leave billions of dollars on the table when you can do something about it?"

The company could be hard pressed to break into the DVD protection market, which has historically been managed by companies or industry groups closely associated with the Hollywood studios themselves. However, studios have been deeply concerned by the failure of today's DVD copy protection and may be willing to experiment with an alternative if it proves practical.

The original DVD copy-protection tool--called Content Scramble System--was developed by a technology coalition that included studio representatives. The tool is licensed by a group with close ties to Hollywood.

A new coalition, which includes Warner Bros., Walt Disney, IBM, Sony, Microsoft and Intel, is working on another content-protection technology for next-generation DVDs. That technology called the Advanced Access Content System, which is not designed for today's DVDs, is being designed to let movies be moved around a home though a digital network.

The group has said little about its progress since announcing the project last year, but companies involved have said they expect to have it ready in time for the first expected release of high-definition video on DVD late in 2005.

Meanwhile, Macrovision is promoting its alternative. The company, which has worked with the studios in the past, was responsible for the technique that makes it difficult to copy movies from one VCR to another, and it has updated that technique to help prevent people from making copies of movies using the analog plugs on DVD players.

The company is using a new version of that analog guard to create copy protection for video-on-demand services. That new guard will be included in TiVo devices and other set-top boxes beginning later this year.

Macrovision's new product takes a different approach to antipiracy than it has taken for analog or audio CDs. Gervin said Macrovision engineers have spent several years looking at how various DVD-copying software packages work and have devised ways to tweak the encoding of a DVD to block most of them.

That means the audio and video content itself requires no new hardware and isn't scrambled anew, as is the case with most rights-management techniques. Someone using one of the ripping tools on a protected DVD might simply find their software crashing, or be presented with error messages instead of a copy.

Macrovision's analog copy-protection business means that it receives pre-market versions of most major DVD players in order to test for compatibility, and it has been performing RipGuard DVD tests on these machines for months. As a result, the company says it is confident that discs encoded with its new product will be playable on all major DVD player brands and PC drives.

Gervin said that the technique would block most rippers, but not all, and could be easily updated for future discs as underground programmers find ways to work around RipGuard.

If adopted, the technology could be a welcome financial shot in the arm for Macrovision. The company has seen its revenue from DVD copy protection fall over recent quarters and has increasingly been looking to other businesses to make up for the shortfall.