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Devices That Move Digital Media Complicate Piracy Clampdown

June 18, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While Hollywood studios try to rein in what consumers can do with digital files, some consumer-electronics companies are speeding ahead with products that make it even easier for people to move movies and music around the home and the Web.

The latest example is a gadget Toshiba Corp. is unveiling today that's an electronic library for photos, songs and movies. The device moves digital media wirelessly across the home and lets people share their audio-video collections over the Internet.

Toshiba's biggest competitors also are working on electronic libraries that can deliver entertainment throughout the home and, in some cases, via the Net. By the end of the year, at least half a dozen companies are expected to have these kinds of products on the market or in final planning stages, said Jeremy Toeman of Mediabolic Inc., a software firm that specializes in home entertainment networks.

These devices illustrate the challenge facing the studios and other copyright holders as they try to clamp down on Internet piracy. The more consumers become accustomed to moving media around their home and the Net, the harder it may be to put an electronic leash on digital movies and music.

"Every June a digitally savvy generation of young people graduates," said analyst Richard Doherty of the Envisioneering Group consulting firm, "and they graduate into higher income and more toys. And those toys are built to share" digital files.

The new breed of device is designed to be the centerpiece of a digital home network that transmits entertainment and information to any room with a computer or TV screen. Relatively few homes have these networks today, but the demand is expected to grow as consumers amass digital collections of music, photos and videos on their computers.

Scott Dinsdale, a top digital strategist for the Motion Picture Assn. of America, said the group's goal is to protect the studios' copyrighted works without restricting the flow of noncommercial material or stopping independent producers from distributing files under their own rules. "We strongly encourage consumer-electronics companies to talk to us about their ideas and their plans."

Many do. For example, Pioneer Electronics USA Inc. modified its as-yet-unreleased electronic library to block access to files through the Internet. The move deters pirates from copying video clips and music, but it also stops owners of the device from accessing their digital photos, home movies and other personal items through the Web.

Toshiba's Wireless Media Center has two hard drives that store and back up digital music, video and photo files from its owner's computers. It uses common wireless or wired techniques to connect to Internet-enabled digital devices in the home, including computers and home automation systems.

The media center also links to the Internet through a high-speed phone or cable modem, making its electronic library available through a private, secure Web site. With the right electronic keys, anyone can connect to a media center through the Web and play the files stored there, effectively turning the device into an online jukebox.

The Web connection also can be used to watch live video feeds from digital cameras connected to the media center, or to control home appliances remotely, said Oscar Koenders, vice president of worldwide product planning for Toshiba Computer Systems Group. Koenders said the digital cameras connected to his media center let relatives in Holland pay virtual visits to his home.

Toeman of Mediabolic said every consumer-electronics company has a different approach to the security issue, with some far more sensitive to Hollywood's concerns than others. The biggest issue, he said, is keeping consumers' personal collections from being pirated through the Internet--a problem exacerbated by the inclusion of Internet-connected computers in home networks.

Mediabolic and other software providers have added several layers of security to their networking technology to help personal networks stay private. "We think those are the kind of mechanisms that are going to have to be put in place to get the copyright holders to start approving these types of systems," Toeman said.

"The problem I have with what they're doing now, they're so scared of the technology, they're not trying things."

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