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Format wars - plan C?

The next generation high definition disc format is still being battled out in homes across the world, but are we yelling in the wrong argument? Could digital delivery steal the spotlight?

The next generation high definition disc format is still being battled out in homes across the world, but are we yelling in the wrong argument? Could digital delivery steal the spotlight?

News has been racing around the Web of the alleged leak of encryption keys used to secure high definition (HD) content found on the next-generation Blu-Ray and HD-DVD discs. While the news is interesting, we'd like to know when they stop being next gen? Surely once it's here it becomes current generation? Both types of players are readily available in the Australian marketplace, as set-top devices from manufacturers such as Toshiba and Samsung. They're also available either as an add-on device for Microsoft's Xbox 360 console, or as the integrated drive in the recently launched Playstation 3 from Sony.



Microsoft's Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive -- HD enabler or piracy device? 

The battle is still being fought between the two formats as HD-DVD and Blu-Ray jostle for space under the format spotlight name-dropping signed major motion picture studios, units shipped and penetration rates of bundled content with hardware sales. By the time the war has flattened out with content on both formats, chances are those crafty, ingenious Taiwanese and Chinese manufacturers will have dual-format, DRM free players in your local supermarket for AU$50 a pop. By which time we'll have moved into digital content delivery.

Late last year a video began to circulate with what was claimed to be the first HD-DVD ripping tool, using the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) keys found on HD-DVD discs and in weakly secured PC high definition playback software to allow users to make a local copy of a disc -- the exact opposite use of the keys designed to securely handshake to protect the content.

Unlike the easily cracked previous generation CSS (Content-Scrambling System) security found on DVDs, AACS was designed with circumvention protection in mind. A major feature of the specification is the ability to add and revoke keys at will. This means that as soon as one is discovered or compromised, the code can be deactivated on players via a blacklist on HD-DVD/Blu-Ray discs, a software patch or firmware update to the player and a new key generated and added to replace it. Unfortunately it's unclear at this point whether that also means if a pirated copy does make its way into the wild and piggybacks on a legitimate key, and is banned; owners of the real copies may find their media useless.

So how does this affect you as an owner of high definition content? Interestingly the BackupHDDVD creator's reasoning behind the Java tool used to decode AACS was their anger at being unable to playback high def content on a non compliant HDCP graphics card despite owning a HDCP capable display. In their opinion it was more an exercise in "fair use" rather than an attempt to try and steal a studio's movie, or artist's music. It's a sentiment many share having seen firsthand some of the restrictive uses of DRM in the entertainment industry. Hopefully we've turned a corner as even Apple and EMI are now offering DRM-free music via the iTunes music store -- a move against the grain of an industry bogged down in protecting its content rather than serving the users who buy their products.

InterVideo, makers of WinDVD software for PC high definition playback will now issue a content patch to strengthen its playback security. Users Failing to download the patch will find their legally purchased high definition content unwatchable until they get up to date. Interestingly, despite the need to issue a patch for PC software, there was found to be no update required for owners of set-top HD-DVD and Blu-Ray players. This means the machines have already either been programmed to support multiple keys, they're relying on users to buy future disc releases which will contain the new batch of validated keys, or perhaps manufacturers aren't concerned about consumers attempting to rip content using set-top devices unlike the USB HD-DVD drive for the Xbox 360 which can be connected to a desktop PC.

Rather than dwell on the process of re-keying software manufacturers to dodge the circumvention, it raises interesting questions on the future of content delivery. Sure you can indefinitely swap keys as soon as someone finds another work-around for DRM, but then users will need to effectively keep their device permanently connected to the Web to ensure they have the latest working white-list.

If consumers are going to be forced to do that, then in an ideal world, complete with competitive, wide-reaching, fat-pipe broadband services, we'd all be taking content on a pay-per-view or video-on-demand basis. Granted the infrastructure (at least in Australia) isn't available yet to support it, but that's not stopping players like Microsoft via its Xbox LIVE marketplace and Sony's PlayStation Store from getting the buzz happening now. There's no doubt in my mind that as users realise they can pay to access the content they want at a time that suits them they'll opt for streaming and downloaded entertainment. Technologies being developed by the industry co-founded Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) are helping to pave the way for the connected home we've been hearing about for years. Once it does eventually arrive, policies such as DTCP/IP stop content leaving the home and rejoining the Internet ala Peer-to-Peer sharing of copyrighted material.



Can't argue with that logic ... 

Buying, downloading and then playing or watching a new release movie, game or TV program on your game console/IPTV set-top box without having to leave the couch certainly appeals to the lazy, myself included. There's always going to be those users who want a paper manual, and something tangible, like a CD or box for the shelf to show for their investment, but I don't know anyone who wouldn't jump at the chance to bring down the cost of entertainment, by giving up something as trivial as a plastic case.

While the method of delivery is an entirely different issue from the restrictions imposed on users for playback on certain devices, if nothing else, the breach of a high definition AACS key does bring alternative delivery to the forefront. Keep breaking and replacing keys, it's a moot point when the future of content delivery will undoubtedly be in a digital format -- one day.