Intel, Sony, Hitachi, Matsushita Electric, and Toshiba presented a proposal yesterday that would protect content that is passed in digital form between PCs, DVD players, and eventually next-generation consumer electronics devices such as digital set-top boxes, high-definition televisions, and digital cameras.
The group's proposal, centered on IEEE 1394, or "FireWire," was presented to a cross-industry standards body organized to establish protections for digital content. Due to begin appearing on PCs next year, IEEE 1394 is a "plug-and-play" technology that makes working with computers more like using a stereo system or TV because peripherals don't need to be configured before they are ready to work.
Electronics giants are envisioning connecting numerous devices together using FireWire so that content is passed between TV and PC, for instance, in its most-pristine digital state. But as more devices are equipped with FireWire or any other digital connection technology (like Universal Serial Bus), the possibility of someone intercepting pristine content becomes greater.
"Right now, you can freely capture [data] bits from a DVD player," says Pat Gelsinger, Intel's vice president and general manager of the business platform group. "We have to make it  secure."
Despite assurances from hardware manufacturers, Hollywood continues to be nervous about protecting digital content, which can be copied nearly ad infinitum without significant loss of quality.
"One thing that delayed the release of content on DVD was...the fear that you could just replicate DVD all over world," said Derek Baine, an analyst with Paul Kagan Associates. In some overseas markets, sales of pirated content on VHS exceeds the amount of content legally sold, he added.
The first steps have already been taken to protect content on the DVD disc, and copy protection mechanisms exist that prevent duplication of the analog signal from a DVD.
But now studios are worried about the Internet and wondering if someday people will be emailing pirated movies to each other, according to Baine. Having copy protection at every possible point of transfer is essential where digital content is involved, he said.
The group says its proposal will ease fears by offering protection using a form of encrypted electronic "handshakes" between different devices. If the proper codes aren't passed between devices, copying won't be allowed. Copying of ordinary television programs isn't likely to be affected, executives noted.
"This is a link in an end-to-end chain of protected content," said Mike Moradzadeh, director of strategic planning and architecture at Intel's consumer products group. "It's really an enabling technology. This is the way we are persuading owners of valuable content to come into the digital space."
By offering up this technology, electronics firms hope to spur sales of so-called "convergence" devices that span the gap between consumer electronics and PCs. Plans for devices such as digital set-top boxes that would offer computer-like functions and access to television programming are in the works by cable companies, but sales of such devices could be hampered if movie studios withhold release of newer, more popular movies in high-quality formats.
Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.