Studios nearing anti-copying tech for TV

Networks, film studios and consumer electronics companies aim by March to set technology standards designed to keep people from swapping TV shows and movies online.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
TV networks, film studios and consumer electronics companies are homing in on a technology they hope will keep consumers from swapping TV shows and movies in Napster-like fashion online.

The new drive, under the auspices of the longstanding cross-industry Copy Protection Working Group, is just one part of a growing effort to keep television from becoming the newest front in the digital piracy wars. As broadcast TV turns digital this year, studios are looking for ways to control how shows are recorded and traded, and they are proposing technologies that could ultimately bar consumers from freely recording TV programs from the airwaves.

The latest effort, a plan to insert digital tags into broadcast TV shows that would prevent them from being put online, is just part of that broader aim. But as more TV content shows up at digital swap meets, copyright owners see it as an increasingly urgent issue. They say they'll have a standard ready by the end of the first quarter of the year.

That's an ambitious timetable for an issue that has caused considerable tension between Hollywood and electronics companies--and even between studios themselves--over the last year. But with a federal deadline bearing down in early May that could require most stations to begin broadcasting digital signals, the anti-piracy group has little time to settle technology disputes.

"Device builders need to have some kind of order in their life," said Scott Dinsdale, the Motion Picture Association of America's executive vice president for digital strategy. "There needs to be a standard way of doing this."

As the TV business moves slowly into a digital mold, issues that have long centered on the Net are becoming a concern for device makers and TV studios.

Studios are worried that broadcast TV signals, which are not scrambled the same way that cable or satellite feeds are, could become a source of piracy as people copy and swap TV shows and broadcast movies. For the last several years, studios, technology companies and government regulators have squabbled over what kind of technology can be added to block recording and copying of broadcast TV--and how strong these security measures can be.

Copyright owners say they are loath to release their best movies or TV shows into the digital TV world, knowing they can be almost instantly copied and traded online. Consumer groups and consumer electronics makers have fought to defend rights to record shows for personal use.

Already video files are becoming common inside post-Napster networks such as Morpheus, Kazaa and Gnutella, as growing numbers of broadband connections and improving video compression files make it feasible for people to swap movies, music videos or TV shows in much the same way they trade MP3 songs.

Digital lockdown
Plans to head off would-be file traders tapping broadcast signals have been debated for much of the last year. Studios have disagreed about the level of protection needed, and consumer electronics companies have balked at adding expensive new technologies into their devices. These have been just a couple of the controversial elements inside a hornet's nest of issues that have collectively slowed the spread of digital TV to a crawl.

The newest plan, which has not been streamlined into actual selection of technology, revolves around inserting an invisible, inaudible "flag" into a digital broadcast. Information contained inside this marker would indicate whether the broadcast could be copied, stored or shared.

For this to work, the watermark would have to be read by devices receiving a TV signal, which could range from TV sets to DVD players, TiVo-style digital video recorders, or even PC cards that let shows be recorded onto a hard drive.

Near-unanimity across several industries will be necessary to achieve this goal. That's been difficult to reach in some previous efforts, most notably the Secure Digital Music Initiative. That group, which had a similar plan to insert watermarks in the music contained on audio CDs, broke down early last year after disagreement between its various members.

The Technology Working Group has a better record of achievement, however. Formed in 1996 to come up with standards for protecting DVDs from piracy, the group has consistently agreed on standards such as the Content Scrambling System, which is built into DVDs and DVD players.

While the current proposal is limited, watermarking technology ultimately could wind up barring consumers from copying their favorite shows or movies off the air, as they are routinely able to do with VCRs or digital video recorders such as TiVo. Proponents of the plan note that the technology wouldn't necessarily bar copying but would allow content owners such as studios to create new business models such as charging for the right to copy or share with friends.

This could be controversial, and some consumer groups have objected, pointing to the 1980s Supreme Court decision that originally gave the green light to VCRs, saying that people could legally tape TV shows.

That doesn't necessarily mean broadcast companies have to provide shows in a format that can be taped and distributed online, however. And analysts say consumers are likely to accept the new copy restrictions as just one more element of a new generation of technology that provides features well beyond what they've been used to with analogue TV.

But a standard that comes together so quickly is unlikely to be a final product, they add.

"This will be cracked, and it will be modified, and it will be cracked again," said P.J. McNealy, research director with GartnerG2, a division of the Gartner research firm. "That's the reality of this business."