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Electronics giants promote video security

A group of major consumer electronics companies are partnering to create a new video copy-protection scheme based on digital "watermarking" technology.

    A group of major consumer electronics companies are partnering to create a new video copy-protection scheme based on digital "watermarking" technology.

    Digimarc, Hitachi, Macrovision, NEC, Philips Electronics, Pioneer and Sony this week said they are forming the Video Watermarking Group to give film studios means to distribute content online without the fear of potential copyright pirates.

    Digital security has been heating up, with many high-tech companies working to devise schemes for embedding digital watermarks within audio and images, such as print or film. Such watermarking technology places a unique bit of digital code into a file that is theoretically difficult to remove without damaging the quality of the sound or image.

    "Hollywood studios would love to see watermarking develop," said Eric Scheirer, analyst at technology research company Forrester Research. "The question (that) still remains is whether any kind of security system that depends on obscurity for keeping things secure could really work. And there (are) many people who claim that it can?Time will tell whether they could create a watermark that would be secure."

    Such technology has been in the spotlight this week, with music industry group Secure Digital Music Initiative threatening legal action against a team of researchers that successfully cracked four watermark schemes and planned to publish their results at a conference Thursday. Although a paper describing their work has been posted on the Internet, the team backed off from the conference plans, citing potential liability.

    The move to create watermark technology for videos also comes as Hollywood is looking to beef up its copy-protection scheme for DVDs and other digital formats. Hackers have cracked the previous standard with a code known as DeCSS, spawning a series of lawsuits aimed at keeping the DVD circumvention code off the Internet.

    The DeCSS code was designed to help people play DVDs on Linux machines, but it could theoretically be used to copy DVDs. In the most high-profile DeCSS case, a federal judge ruled last year that the online hacker magazine 2600 violated copyright law merely by posting and linking to the code. The case, however, is being appealed to a higher court; oral arguments are scheduled May 1 in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

    E.K. Ranjit, chief financial officer for Portland, Ore.-based Digimarc, said the Video Watermarking Group was formed to create a standard that would be used by the motion picture industry. He said the group merged two other groups, Galaxy and Millennium, that have been working on digital watermarking for a couple of years.

    "Watermarking technology is generally regarded as an essential component for preventing unauthorized copying," Ranjit said. "This is a very key technology for the next generation of things to come."

    Lock down on tunes
    Such technology has been a controversial approach for protecting content in the music industry. The SDMI group, which includes technology, hardware and music companies, has been working on a way to use watermarks in recorded music for several years.

    Questions about the technology's ability to effectively protect against copying, and about interference with the quality of digital files, have helped delay these efforts considerably, however.

    Many technologists say watermarking is better suited to tracking content than it is to protecting against reproduction. Unlike encryption, which scrambles a file unless someone has a "key" to unlock the process, watermarking does not intrinsically prevent use of a file. Instead it requires any player--a DVD machine or MP3 player, for example--to have instructions built in that can read watermarks and accept only correctly marked files.

    Hardware manufacturers have traditionally been skeptical of this kind of approach, because of the need to be able to play back CDs or DVDs that were created without watermarks included. Critics of the approach also say it is not difficult to strip out watermarks, making files appear as though they lack protection.

    As watermarking builds tension between academics and the music industry, it remains to be seen whether it will be a feasible copy protection method for the film industry.

    The Video Watermarking Group "may be able to provide a unified solution to alleviate the movie industry's fears," said P.J. McNealy, an analyst at research company Gartner. But, "it comes back to the fundamental issue that the copyright holders still hold the keys here. It's copyright holders who will dictate what the security measures are for their materials."

    News.com's John Borland contributed to this report.