Tech, studio giants team on new DVD locks

New technology would let high-definition videos be copied, moved into home networks.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
A group of high-profile technology companies and movie studios have joined forces to create a new copy protection standard for DVDs that could allow high-definition movies to be copied and used inside home networks.


What's new:
Several high-profile technology companies and movie studios have formed a coalition to create new high-definition DVD copy protection.

Bottom line:
If the group is successful, a consumer might be able to buy a high-definition movie, store it on a PC, watch it on a networked 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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Dubbed Advanced Access Content System, or AACS, the technology--which has yet to be created--would replace the anticopying technology that now protects ordinary DVDs, but it would be focused on next-generation, high-definition discs. As previously reported, the group behind the technology includes IBM, Intel, Warner Bros., Disney, Microsoft, Sony and Panasonic, as well as Toshiba.

Unlike today's technology, which allows movies to be played only in authorized DVD players, AACS would potentially allow people to store copies of a movie on home computers and watch it on other devices connected to a network--or even transfer it to a portable movie player.

"We're going to enable a bunch of new scenarios that add to things that you can do with discs in the home today," Michael Ripley, a senior staff engineer at Intel, said during a conference call. "We're building the foundation of something that will have broad support and will meet the broad needs of the affected industries in a way that has not necessarily happened in the past."

The AACS LA alliance (the LA stands for Licensing Authority) marks the culmination of years of tentative and often suspicious contact between the high-tech industry and Hollywood. Technology companies and content companies have developed content protection systems before--but rarely in concert.

The group has considerable work ahead before coming to market. Members said they have already begun working on the specifications and hope to release the technology this year. But earlier cross-industry content protection alliances, such as the Secure Digital Music Initiative, have broken down after hammering out initially promising agreements.

Nevertheless, analysts said the broad range of representation gave the alliance a more promising future than some of the initiatives that had come solely out of the technology industry.

"In this case, you've got two major gorillas from the home video business," GartnerG2 Vice President James Brancheau said. "That's really good news. I like the composition of this."

The content protection system on today's DVDs, called Content Scrambling System, or CSS, was broken in the late 1990s by hackers. A program that helped copy DVDs called DeCSS was subsequently distributed by Norwegian programmer Jon Johansen. Although U.S. courts ruled that it was illegal, other programs soon appeared, including the popular DVD X-Copy from 321 Studios.

Like CSS, the new AACS technology would be added to a disc as it is created and would require specific hardware or software to have the "key" to unlock the content on the disc. Individual keys could be retired by studios if they slip into the public domain, allowing the overall system to continue functioning, even if a key is broken or accidentally released, as was the case with CSS.

Unlike today's technology, the newly developed content protection system would also allow movie studios to specify exactly what could be done with the video. For example, a studio might allow people to store the content on a Media Center PC and stream it to TVs around the house, or to transfer it to a portable device, for example.

Members of the group said the new technology would be complementary to other digital rights management and content protection systems, such as Microsoft's Windows Media.

However, Microsoft has also touted the use of its own digital rights management technology to protect high-definition movie content. The company even took the uncharacteristic step of submitting its Windows Media video technology, called VC-9, to the DVD Forum to be approved as a standard, ultimately hoping that studios would use the video technology and the associated rights management tools to protect new DVDs.

The AACS LA coalition said it would have technology specifications and licenses ready later this year. It will provide licenses to all content, technology or consumers electronics companies.

All of the technology companies involved have separately made their own strides toward elements of content protection that could help create the vision of the "digital home" talked up by so many high-tech executives.

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

IBM has been working on its own home networking security system, called extensible content protection, or xCP, which it says will contribute to the new AACS specifications. Intel, working through the "5C" consortium of Hitachi, Intel, Matsushita, Sony and Toshiba, has helped develop a technology called Digital Transmission Content Protection, designed to protect, compress and move video between different points in a home network.

Both Warner and Sony have previously endorsed that technology.