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Studios Spur Measures to Thwart Piracy

Digital: Joining forces with high-tech and consumer-electronics firms, they push for technology to block video swapping.

January 18, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eager to block video piracy, the Hollywood studios and TV networks are trying to alter the design of digital TVs, recorders and computers to stop programs broadcast over the air from being swapped over the Internet.

The effort is the latest fallout from Napster and other online file-sharing sites, which have spurred millions of consumers to copy an incalculable amount of music and video for free through the Net. Online piracy experts say more than 1 million movie files are copied online daily.

Working with consumer-electronics and high-tech companies, the studios hope to reach consensus on a technology for protecting digital TV broadcasts by the end of March, with products incorporating it as early as next year.

The inter-industry Broadcast Protection Discussion Group is considering a proposal by News Corp. that would use electronic tags within a digital TV broadcast to dictate whether a program could be copied through the Net. Supporters of the proposal want the federal government to mandate that all digital TV sets, receivers and computers be capable of reading and obeying those tags.

Although the studios and TV networks are supported to some degree by consumer-electronics and technology companies, critics warn that the effort ultimately could hurt consumers who've already bought sets, as well as stifling innovation.

"If we go down that road, we're going to live in a world where people with the next great technological innovation are going to have to go ask permission in Hollywood before their product is allowed to ship," said Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for civil liberties on the Net. "That's not the way the United States has become a leader in the technological world."

But advocates say free TV could evaporate if broadcasters can't assure the studios that their movies won't be retransmitted freely over the Internet.

"If something is not done to provide some degree of security, then it drives content to [cable and satellite TV] systems. And I don't see how that is in the overall public interest," said Fritz Attaway, an executive vice president for the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

Added Andrew G. Setos, president of engineering for the Fox Group, "We want to head off the Napsterization of digital television.At a meeting Tuesday of the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group, Setos--one of three co-chairmen--laid out a proposal for blocking Internet redistribution.

Setos' plan is simple on the surface. Broadcasters would insert an electronic tag into digital programs to indicate whether the program could be retransmitted over the Internet. That tag would be read by each device that can receive a digital TV stream, and if the flag said no retransmission, the program could not be passed digitally over the Net.

The Advanced Television Systems Committee, the group that sets standards for how digital TV is broadcast, is already developing a standard for inserting the tags into a TV signal. It's up to the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group, however, to define how sets and other devices would react to the tags.

The consensus among consumer-electronics and technology companies is to block Internet redistribution, but making the system work and resist hacking won't be easy, said Jim Burger, an attorney representing the computer industry. There's also the question of how much the added technology will cost, and who will pay for it.

Gary Klein, a vice president at the Consumer Electronics Assn., said his group agrees that there needs to be some controls on Internet distribution of TV broadcasts. "However," he added, "the protection that would accomplish that should not in any way inhibit transmitting the content within the home network."

Setos' proposal wouldn't rule out home networks, but it would require them to use a secure protocol instead of the common Ethernet standard.

To be effective, the control technology would have to be found in every device capable of receiving a DTV signal. That means the federal government will have to mandate the technology in new devices, either through regulation or law.

A major problem for the industry, however, is that the restrictions can be enforced only on devices that receive the TV signal digitally. And the majority of the 2 million HDTV sets on the market don't have digital connectors. They talk to each other through analog outputs and inputs, and those sockets can't obey the rules that the studios want to impose.

The Broadcast Protection Discussion Group isn't addressing what happens over analog connectors. And there's a wide split among consumer-electronics companies and studios over how to plug that gap.

What some studios want to do is require all protected programs--that is, all shows marked for no redistribution over the Internet--to be transmitted only through digital outputs. HDTV monitors with analog outputs would be cut off or limited to receiving something less than high-definition TV.

An alternative, Setos said, is developing a watermark that could be passed through analog connectors yet still tell digital devices not to retransmit shows over the Net. To make this approach work, any device that could convert analog video to digital would have to look for the watermark and respect the restrictions it imposed.

Consumer-electronics executives say they don't want consumers who've invested in HDTVs--about 2 million so far--to lose any of the value of their investment. But Preston Padden, an executive vice president of Walt Disney Co., said the impact would be extremely limited. "If the biggest problem to getting this solved is the 13 people who've already purchased HDTVs, I will personally drive the converter boxes to their homes and install them myself."

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