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Two Studios Accept Digital Copyright System

Entertainment: Sony and Warner Bros. agree to adopt new technology to protect their offerings, but others hold out.

July 18, 2001|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two Hollywood studios have formally adopted a copyright-protection technology pushed by the consumer electronics industry, speeding the arrival of new digital televisions and recorders.

But the long-awaited move by Sony Pictures Entertainment and Warner Bros. doesn't end the split in Hollywood over how to battle Internet piracy. Before the other five major studios license the "digital transmission content protection" technology that Sony and Warner Bros. have embraced, they want to extend it to stop digital TV broadcasts from being bootlegged over the Internet.

The split suggests that the studios won't rush to deliver more of their most valuable movies and programs in high-quality digital forms, such as high-definition TV. Still, some observers said the commitment by Sony and Warner Bros. to DTCP would be enough to spur a wave of inter-connectable digital entertainment products for the home.

Digital TV sets, DVD players, digital cable and satellite receivers have been on the market for several years, but they cannot connect to each other digitally. That's because the entertainment industry and electronics manufacturers hadn't been able to agree on a standard technique for transmitting digital signals without encouraging piracy.

As a result, digital signals had to be converted to analog before they could be passed from device to device. The conversion deterred would-be pirates from making pristine digital copies, but it also increased costs and reduced picture quality for consumers.

The DTCP technology, which was developed by Hitachi Ltd., Intel Corp., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp., attaches rules to a digital signal as it's being transmitted over a high-capacity "firewire" connection. Those rules can prevent a program from being recorded or, once it has been recorded, from being reproduced.

The rules won't apply to programs received over the air, so local broadcasts on digital TV channels won't face limits on recording. Nor do the long-term, royalty-free licenses signed by Sony and Warner Bros. allow the companies to limit recording on basic cable and satellite channels.

Instead, the rules are designed to limit copying of pay-per-view programs and premium channels, such as HBO and Showtime. The rules can limit how long a program can be stored on a personal video recorder, such as those powered by TiVo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s Ultimate TV, and they can cut the resolution of high-definition programs when passing them to HDTV sets that don't have a firewire connector.

The technology also is designed to prevent a program delivered through a compliant cable or satellite receiver from being rebroadcast over the Internet. But in its current form, it won't stop a local TV station's digital broadcast from being pirated over the Net.

That's a major issue for Sony, "but we didn't believe that [DTCP] was the solution," said Mitch Singer, a senior vice president at Sony Pictures Entertainment. The company felt it was more important for manufacturers to start putting DTCP into as many devices as possible, rather than hold up the deployment while the technology was revised, Singer said.

The other five studios, however, want the DTCP technology to read hidden electronic marks that could prevent over-the-air broadcasts from being retransmitted over the Net. Preston Padden, executive vice president for government relations at Walt Disney Co., said those studios would soon present a detailed licensing proposal to that effect.

"If the protection against Internet retransmission is available only for cable programming, that will drive all of the high-value, highest-quality programming to cable and away from the broadcast system," Padden said. And that loss, he said, would be bad for consumers who rely on free over-the-air TV.

Michael B. Ayers, president of the licensing group for the five DTCP creators, said the watermark-reading technology probably could be developed, although it would take some time. But it might violate antitrust laws to do so, because "you're starting to talk about signal paths that never had anything to do with [DTCP] in the first place."

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