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Studios, Firms in Piracy Talks

At issue is how to save anti-copying signals when they are converted from digital to analog.

February 24, 2003|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

Trying to plug another potential hole in the anti-piracy dike, Hollywood studios have started a new round of private meetings with high-tech companies and consumer-electronics manufacturers to explore ways to stop unauthorized recordings.

This time, the issue is how to preserve anti-copying signals on a digital television show, online video or DVD when converted from digital to analog.

That kind of conversion, which has to happen before a digital program can be sent to the vast majority of TV sets, is inherently fatal to digital copy-protection techniques.

Years from now, when consumers have digital TVs that connect digitally to set-top boxes and recorders, the potential problem goes away. In the meantime, the studios' fear is that the mixture of analog and digital devices in homes will allow their movies and premium TV programs to be copied digitally and distributed freely via the Internet.

If that happens on a global scale, as it has in the music industry, the studios worry that they would lose the ability to sell programs to syndicators, overseas broadcasters and DVD buyers -- in other words, much of what they collect from a program after its first airing.

Some participants in the group, whose co-chairmen are from Philips Electronics, Microsoft Corp. and AOL Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. unit, scoff at such dire predictions, arguing that today's Internet connections are too slow to enable widespread video piracy.

Nevertheless, there's no shortage of movies and TV shows already available for free online to those who know where to look for them. For example, numerous episodes from the first two seasons of HBO's "Six Feet Under" and a copy of the unreleased DVD version of "The Hours" are up for grabs from online sites that cater to video pirates.

"For those people who do suggest that audio-visual files are impractical to send over the Internet because of the size of the file and the speed of current Internet connections, here is a cautionary tale," said Andrew G. Setos, president of engineering at News Corp.'s Fox Group. "Ten years ago it took eight hours to download a song. Now it takes seconds."

The Analog Reconversion Discussion Group, as the inter-industry collective is called, says its purpose is simply to identify technological tools that may be relevant to the piracy issue. It's not supposed to select or even recommend any technologies, and it won't address such thorny policy questions as which programs can be protected and how severe the limits on copying can be.

Nor is the group operating under any timetable. Nonetheless, the studios are eager for results, and they warn that the group risks being irrelevant if it doesn't act promptly -- particularly with some members of Congress eager to legislate on piracy and digital TV.

Other participants, meanwhile, are wary of how Hollywood might use whatever findings come out of the group. Representatives of consumer groups and the computer industry, in particular, don't want the studios to characterize the group's work as setting the stage for the government to mandate anti-piracy technology in a sweeping array of devices.

Seth Schoen of the Electronic Frontier Federation, a group that advocates civil liberties online, said the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act puts the burden on Hollywood to protect its programs. But the studios' anti-piracy initiatives would shift the burden onto manufacturers so that "whenever you make anything technical, you have to go and ask them, 'How do I design this so that it protects your interests?' "

The analog discussion group, which held its first meeting Feb. 12, arrives on the heels of a similar inter-industry dialogue about ways to block digital TV broadcasts from being retransmitted over the Internet. Although the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group left many disputed points unresolved in its final report last June, the studios are pushing the Federal Communications Commission to adopt regulations that would enforce the panel's core recommendations.

The broadcast discussion group confined its work to digital signals passed through digital connectors, which could rely on digital anti-copying techniques to deter files from being pirated on the Internet.

The vast majority of today's TVs are analog, however, and even digital TVs rely in many cases on analog connectors to receive digital TV broadcasts. Meanwhile, there's a growing number of devices in the home that can make a digital recording of an analog TV signal, ranging from set-top recorders to computers.

The new group will explore ways to use electronic watermarks and other signaling techniques that could remain embedded in a program after it's converted to analog. Many DVD recorders already incorporate one such technology, which hides copying restrictions within an unused portion of a standard TV picture.

One studio executive, who asked not to be identified, said the solution could focus just on analog-to-digital converters smart enough to know what a TV signal looks like.

"What we could do is design a system ... where the device that digitizes an analog video signal has a responsibility to protect it if it finds it's protected material," the executive said, adding that "the choice of methods should be very broad."

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