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Movie blackout for P2P networks?

Philips, others are developing ways to identify and block movies being traded on peer-to-peer networks.

Researchers at Royal Philips Electronics are developing new "fingerprinting" technology that could automatically identify and block transmission of digital-video files, potentially handing movie studios a new weapon in its war on peer-to-peer networks.

The technique would be similar to technology already being used to track and prevent copying of music files on some university networks. Philips' audio fingerprinting technology is central to Napster founder Shawn Fanning's new company Snocap, which aims to turn file-swapping networks into digital-song stores.

Once completed, Philips' technology--along with related tools from other companies--could be a powerful weapon in Hollywood's increasingly aggressive attempts to choke off the flood of films being traded online. For now, the tools are in an early stage of development, but Philips has begun to show them to potential partners and customers.

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What's new:
Researchers are developing ways to identify and block movies being traded on peer-to-peer networks.

Bottom line:
The new tools could be a powerful weapon in Hollywood's attempts to choke off the flood of films being traded online, and could reignite the debates over P2P legislation.

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"For identifying content over peer-to-peer networks, this is the ideal technology to use," said Ronald Maandonks, business development manager for content identification at Philips. "We are now working with a group of engineers to improve it."

A tool for identifying video mid-swap could reignite the debates over peer-to-peer legislation. Entertainment companies have pressed peer-to-peer software companies to install filters that block copyright material, but the software companies have said the idea is impractical.

Fingerprinting first appeared in the peer-to-peer world when a federal judge ordered the original Napster to block trades of copyright songs through its network in 2001. The company used early versions of audio fingerprinting technology to identify songs, which ultimately helped make the network all but unusable.

Independent company Audible Magic appeared several years later, saying it had developed its own way of fingerprinting songs online. The company's claims were quickly taken up by the Recording Industry Association of America, which said file-swapping companies should build this kind of song-stopping filters into their software.

Audible Magic's technology is now being used by a handful of universities, including Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., and Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, to identify and block song swaps on their networks.

Computers watching movies
Video fingerprinting would work much like its musical cousin. In the case of songs, a unique string of data (the "fingerprint") is associated with each recording. Software that can be installed inside an ISP network monitors files being swapped, checking for matches to a database of these fingerprints. If a match is found, the file can be blocked.

The trick is to make that identification process work even if the file is compressed, turned into a different computer file format or otherwise changed slightly. For a song, this means basing the fingerprint on the music's acoustical properties, rather than on the ones and zeros that make up a given digital file.

The video process is similar, but would use visual characteristics of individual video frames instead of audio qualities.

"Using the audio track makes a lot of sense with a lot of titles...That capability is done and tested and works."
--Vance Ikezoye, CEO,
Audible Magic

That makes the process a challenge, however. A two-hour movie contains far more material than a four-minute pop song. A good fingerprinting technique must be able to identify the movie even if parts of it are being downloaded out of order, or if some bits have been cut out, Maandonks said.

Facing these hurdles, Audible Magic is already going down a different road with its software. It has already added the capability to strip out the audio from a video file and use its audio fingerprinting techniques to identify a film. That requires less processing power and can be done with more certainty today, the company said.

"Using the audio track makes a lot of sense with a lot of titles," said Vance Ikezoye, CEO of Audible Magic. "That capability is done and tested and works."

Movie studios still tentative
Even if proven successful, it could be years before video fingerprinting starts putting up real roadblocks to film-swappers.

That's largely because the identification technology isn't enough by itself. A massive database of fingerprints also needs to be created, which means that studios or third parties have to run millions of hours of movies, TV shows and other video through fingerprinting tools.

Ikezoye said his company has worked with some studios to develop a small test database. Philips said it has had discussions with studios, but isn't yet to the point of developing the needed fingerprint library.

A Motion Picture Association of America executive said the group is looking closely at ways of identifying films online, but is focused more specifically on watermarking, a means of embedding extra code that helps track the origin of pirated copies. That technique has been particularly useful in the MPAA's effort to keep Oscar-nominated films offline.

"Video and audio watermarking for forensic data embedding is becoming an important tool in content owners' battle with piracy," said Brad Hunt, the MPAA's chief technology officer. "These technologies are proving to be quite useful and reliable in pinpointing the initial source of piracy."

As with previous file-swapping issues, the studios are likely to watch what's happening in the music business for clues to their own future. There, Fanning's Snocap is close to launching a service that can turn file-swapping networks into song stores such as Apple Computer's iTunes by identifying music and asking downloaders to pay for it.

Snocap executives say their tools could also be used to sell movies once the video fingerprinting technology is completed. They say they are completely focused on the music business today, however.

For now, Philips is realistic about the challenges ahead.

"We're careful with predicting what and when," Maandonks said. "We hope to have a better version available at the end of the year or the beginning of next year."

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