|Antipiracy efforts spark battle over computer hardware |
By John Borland
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
March 23, 2001, 4:00 a.m. PT
A fight over control of computer hardware, fanned by music trading posts such as Napster and Gnutella, is pitting free-speech advocates against some of Silicon Valley's largest companies.
Powerhouses such as Intel and IBM are taking early steps toward
building antipiracy protections for music, videos and software directly into storage drives, memory cards, chips and other hardware parts.
These technologies, some of which are nearing the marketplace, could block a song or any other digital material from being copied or saved--potentially welcome news to record labels and movie studios.
Microsoft and others are pursuing the same idea with software, but
critics say even the best of these models is likely to be broken or
stripped out by dedicated hackers. Hardware-based protections
could prove a much stronger layer of protection.
The battleground over hardware controls crosses territory ranging from the
obscure inner workings of computer storage devices to intellectual property
disputes that some say may soon reach the Supreme Court as a part of the
Napster controversy or other pending copyright cases. For
all involved, these massive issues boil down to a simple question: How
much can technology and entertainment companies control what consumers do
with their products after buying them?
"If they succeed in this, all of a sudden these industries have complete
control over how the public does such things as backing up their music
libraries," said John Martilla, director of the Electronic Frontier
Foundation's (EFF) Campaign for
Audiovisual Free Expression, which is spearheading opposition to several
"digital rights management" technologies. Even legal activities such as
sampling digital works for educational or critical purposes could be
blocked under proposed models, Martilla said.
On the other side are copyright holders, who argue that the proliferation
of peer-to-peer networks
threatens to undermine entire industries ranging from entertainment to
software. Even after recent legal
precedents that imposed limits on Napster, underground traders have
vowed to circumvent any
The motives of the hardware manufacturers are not solely altruistic.
Computer and electronics companies badly want the market for digital media
players to expand--and that means convincing the content companies that the
world is safe for digital music and video.
Why do technology companies care?
The idea of building copy-protection technology into hardware is not a new
one, nor has it proved highly successful in other initiatives. The
Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI),
sponsored by the music, technology and consumer electronics industries, has
been trying to find a universally acceptable way to do just that with limited success for two years.
A key problem is that partial measures aren't particularly useful. Security
locks are foolproof only when all brands of stereos, computers and MP3
players use the same antipiracy technology, leaving consumers
little choice but to accept it. When products with no protections have been left on the market, consumers have purchased those instead.
This consumer trend has been evident for years. Circuit City's Divx DVD
player, designed to control the use of digital videos, died a quick market death. Sony's
Vaio Music Clip was the only music player to add early versions of the
SDMI's proposals, but the technology was removed after negative reviews and
Even more successful products with copyright protections have met with
difficulty. DVDs and DVD players work together to prevent piracy partly
with an encryption system that blocks copying. But a young Norwegian man
figured out how to evade this in 1999, forcing a series of legal battles by the movie
industry in attempts to keep that information off the Internet.
This history alone would seem to provide ample evidence that technology
companies might take a jaundiced view of building features into their
products that restrict their customers' ability to use them. But as
personal computer sales are flattening, hardware makers are doing what they
can to help jump-start the market for media content that might persuade
consumers to buy more high-end machines.
"We're not in this for the fees we're going to get from the record
companies or anything," said Don Lake, program director for copy-protection
business development at IBM Research, which is helping to develop several
anti-piracy technologies. "We're a PC company. As long as we see content
providers that want to protect content, and we have the technology, we're
going to help."
Hardware flash points
One of the most recent controversial plans has come from a group dubbed the
4C Entity, which includes
IBM, Intel, Matsushita Electric and Toshiba.
The group has created a technology called CPRM (Content
Protection for Recordable Media) that would block certain types of files
from being transferred to portable devices such as Zip
drives, or microdrives, or the flash memory cards used in MP3 players. A
similar specification is designed for prerecorded media such as audio DVDs.
The 4C group sparked intense
protest by taking their proposal to an industry standards group last
year, asking that support for
copyright protection be added directly into the rules dictating how data
storage drives--including PC hard drives--talk to each other.
Although the 4C proposal was ultimately withdrawn, another proposal that
seeks much the same guards is being put to a vote by mail, with ballots to
be tallied April 2. Whatever the outcome, the 4C group is pressing forward
with the licensing process for its technology, and portable devices with
the copy protections built in could emerge as soon as this summer.
"I think that in the grand scheme of things, the only way to make copy
protections work is to invoke the hardware in a very integrated way," said
Eric Scheirer, an analyst at Forrester Research.
Although Intel has made other moves toward providing
anti-copying technology, it has made no effort to put the technology on its
core computer chips, a shift that would vastly increase the profile and
probability of success for digital rights management. Other chipmakers are
pursuing this course but have yet to announce any products.
Cirrus Logic has begun producing chips that include
copy-protection technology from InterTrust. Texas Instruments and chip
designer ARM Holdings have licensed the same technology.
InterTrust also creates its own chip, dubbed the RightsChip, which can be
used to lay the foundation of anti-piracy technology deep into digital
music devices or even desktop computers. Although it would not disclose
details, InterTrust says it has already manufactured and shipped more than
200,000 of these chips to a customer that will use them for personal
"This kind of architecture makes it possible to build applications where
it's not feasible to modify or hack the software," said Olin Sibert,
InterTrust's vice president of strategic technology.
The company's rights management technology is already being built into such
high-profile products as Creative Labs' Nomad II MP3 player, but not at the
hardware level. More recently, Nokia took a 5 percent stake in InterTrust
with an eye toward adding content protection to MP3-playing cellular phones.
The digital rights babble
Having the content protection built into players and computers can go a
long way toward making piracy more difficult. But a critical step is still
missing: For these devices to have a significant effect, the record
companies or studios must release their music, CDs or movies in the formats
that take advantage of the devices' protections.
The entertainment industry could conceivably act quickly if a hardware
solution were to become available, but unanimous agreement remains an
Competing versions of digital rights management software that allow
copyright holders to control who can use their works--and how--are still
being tested by most of the record labels. Microsoft and InterTrust each
have won considerable support, but no company has settled on a single format.
Many analysts expect this chaos to continue well into the future, a
prospect that bodes ill for successful, widespread antipiracy locks unless
some universal standard can be mandated. Although it's unlikely Congress
will step in to impose rules, skeptics say this might be what it will take.
"There are so many interests that have to be on the same page," Forrester's
Scheirer said. "I think the only way this would work is through legislation."