Tech, Hollywood heavyweights create content coalition

IBM, Intel, Disney and others will work on rules for ensuring the security of content in home networks.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
Consumers might soon be able to make legal copies of high-definition movies, if a new coalition of media companies can reach agreement.

Several high-profile technology companies and movie studios are expected to announce Wednesday that they have formed an alliance to ensure that high-definition video and other content cannot be pirated in home networks. In doing so, the group may also lay the groundwork for the legal copying of such content.

Sources familiar with the group's formation said the initial members include IBM, Intel, Sony, Microsoft, Warner Bros., Walt Disney and Panasonic. The announcement is scheduled to be made at the cross-industry Content Protection Technology Working Group (CPTWG) meeting in Los Angeles, although last-minute membership changes could occur before then.


What's new:
Several high-profile technology companies and movie studios have formed a coalition to ensure that high-definition video and other content cannot be pirated.

Bottom line:
If the group is successful, a consumer might be able to download a high-definition movie, store it on a PC, watch it on a television and transfer it to a mobile device to watch while traveling. But the two main camps have sharply divided loyalties and may not be able to reach a consensus.

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The alliance marks the culmination of years of tentative and often suspicious contact between the high-tech industry and Hollywood. It will be aimed at developing specifications to protect copyrighted content such as movies inside home networks. If the group is successful, a consumer might be able to download a high-definition movie, store it on a PC, watch it on a television and transfer it to a mobile device to watch while traveling.

Currently, differing formats and copy-protection schemes make this an arduous, if not illegal, task. Indeed, many technologies are being deliberately disabled (such as Firewire ports on some high-definition satellite boxes) because of piracy fears.

Despite the inclusion of some tech and content heavyweights, to be successful many hurdles will need to be overcome. Most importantly are the differing goals of the two main camps. Tech companies have much to gain from the digitization of the living room and want consumers to be able to perform a wide variety of tasks with digital content. Companies that produce movies and music want make sure that people are buying the content and not simply watching pirated material, a la Napster.

In addition, the details will likely to take some time to hammer out. As a result, rapid changes in technology could mean the target is constantly moving. For example, portable video players that store content on hard disks as opposed to DVDs are just now reaching the market.

To many companies, the home network of the future would connect a variety of computers, monitors, recording devices and consumer electronics devices located throughout a house. Content, whether movies music, games or other software, would no longer be tied to a single machine or type of device.

At trade shows such as the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, executives have demonstrated applications such as watching the beginning of a movie on a living TV and then finishing it on bedroom TV. Much of the core technology to make that happen now exists, but content owners have to be comfortable that those kinds of digital hand-offs aren't a point where pirates can break in an make copies, executives say.

"We have to be careful about all the boundaries between these devices, the different user interfaces, (and) the complexity," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said in his keynote speech at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "A particular challenge here is making sure that we strike the right balance in managing digital rights and yet having the simplicity that you can move the content that you paid for around and have it available in the richest possible way--a very tough problem."

Hollywood companies in particular have long been suspicious of the technology industry, since it has been their computers, disc-burners and applications such as file-sharing programs that have helped create an explosion of casual copying and professional piracy.

Several rounds of often inconclusive meetings on the issue took place in 2001 and 2002. In late 2002, Microsoft, Sony and Intel formed a group to resolve consumer electronics standards, with one of its goals being to come up with a way to transfer files.

In his January CES speech, Intel President Paul Otellini said the suspicion had begun to thaw in earnest during 2003. During the speech, executives from Sony Entertainment, Disney and other companies pledged via videotaped statements to cooperate with Intel and others in coming up with better standards for transferring entertainment over the Web.

In several meetings over the past year, "we showed them (the film industry as a whole) that we are not about driving rampant piracy," Otellini said in a January interview.

Other recent cooperative strides have been made. Hollywood studios and some technology companies worked closely together creating the "broadcast flag," a bit of code that will be added to digital TV signals to block copies of shows from being put on the Internet.

Studios have put some movies online that are protected by Microsoft's digital rights management, accessible through services including Movielink and CinemaNow. Microsoft and Disney also struck a wide-ranging deal focusing on content protection earlier this year.

Tech companies have also been focusing specifically on the home networking problems for some time.

IBM has been working on a own home networking security system called extensible content protection, or xCP. Intel, working through the "5C" Consortium, has helped develop a technology called Digital Transmission Content Protection, which helps protect, compress, and move video between different points in a home network.

Both Warner and Sony have previously endorsed that technology.