Psssstttt. Wanna buy a black box?"
Don't be surprised if some huckster approaches you this way in or around your local video store. The black box is a mechanism that erases Macrovision. That's the anti-copying protection encoded on many prerecorded cassettes, which produces a distorted picture if you try to copy a tape.
By hooking up the black box to two VCRs-inserting a blank tape in one and a Macrovision-encoded cassette in the other-the box electronically strips the Macrovision coding so that the picture on the copy is not distorted.
Most black boxes are sold for $50-$90 by mail order-many from ads in consumer electronics magazines. But some black boxes are sold in the $25 range by enterprising businessmen who hang around video stores, which are loaded with potential buyers for these boxes.
Many home-video fans hate Macrovision. Before it was perfected and used extensively, all that was needed to copy a rented movie were two VCRs, a set of wires and a blank tape. But with Macrovision, encoded in the tape by the manufacturer, the picture on the copy is jittery or spoiled by erratic brightness or uneven color or various forms of visual noise. It's not easily watchable.
According to recent industry surveys, 10% to 20% of VCR owners engage in copying of prerecorded tapes, which is a violation of federal copyright laws. That percentage would be much higher if so many tapes weren't protected by Macrovision. Of the 190 million movie cassettes made in this country last year, 88 million (or 46%) were encoded with Macrovision.
Often when home-video customers find a rented tape has a distorted picture, they assume that while Macrovision was being encoded at the factory, it warped the picture in the original copy.
Vigorously defending his company's product, Macrovision's Bill Krepick, vice president of sales and marketing, claims that last year only a handful of such quality complaints were legitimately traceable to the Macrovision process.
It's not only the consumer who's interested in the black box. Retailers often buy them to make rental copies that are Macrovision-free in order to build up their inventory of hit films for the cost of blank tapes. What often happens, Krepick explained, is that customers will get copies that the retailer made imperfectly. "But that's not the fault of Macrovision," he said.
Macrovision was first introduced in late 1985, used on the movie "The Cotton Club." But then the process wasn't perfected and instead it distorted the picture in the original prerecorded tape or didn't successfully make the copy unwatchable. For a while, Macrovision fell out of favor with home-video companies that pay for the process, roughly one-half percent or less of the retail price per copy. But the process has been improved, leading to its extensive use.
Macrovision's primary enemy is now the manufacturers of these black boxes. Six to eight companies make them, Krepick estimated. He declined to speculate on how many black boxes are in use. "These are underground operations," he said. "Nobody knows how many boxes are made or sold because it's hard to get legitimate figures."
Efforts to reach any company reps for comment are futile. Anticipating prosecution, these outfits operate rather covertly. Though reachable through the 800 numbers used to place orders, the company reps aren't interested in talking to the press.
The scales of justice are tipped in favor of these manufacturers. The products protect themselves by including such notices as, "This object must not be used for copying anti-copy encoded information carriers, except as permitted under copyright law."
Macrovision's sole recourse is to sue for patent infringement, a slow process that would be extremely expensive-for Macrovision. What Macrovision is pushing, Krepick said, is an amendment to the federal copyright law that would outlaw the sale and distribution of the black boxes and subject violators to stiff penalties and jail terms.