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Glass Houses: Could 3D Be The Long-Awaited Deterrent To Piracy?
Posted Nov 18, 2008 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Everyone wants to talk about 3D movies and where the new 3D trend will take the industry. But there's no question a new 3D era is coming, and it's coming to Blu-ray, as evidenced by the recent release of the 3D Journey to the Center of the Earth on disc. Disney announced earlier this year that all its future animated features would be delivered in 3D, beginning with the likes of Fly Me to the Moon and Bolt.

3D movies can be fun to watch even with the dorky glasses (although those glasses may soon disappear). From a technology standpoint, it’s fascinating, and that's what I’ve been writing about recently. However, there seem to be other implications. On the one hand, part of the appeal of 3D movies to Hollywood is that you can't just download and watch a torrent of a 3D movie. So that adds value to a 3D movie since there's no downloadable equivalent. On the other hand, as soon as the 3D film is on disc, it's open season for piracy once again.

About 90 percent of pirated movies are recorded on a camcorder in the movie theater, and the good news is, there are no 3D camcorders, according to Jian Zhao, CTO of Thomson’s Software & Technology Solutions business. Will 3D camcorders ever come to market? Zhao says that realistically it is possible, but is it practical? You’ll need to register and synchronize every frame for the left and the right eye. "It will be expensive and time-consuming," he said.

Several different technologies are used to produce 3D content. These include polarized (used for Digital Cinema), anaglyph, and multiplexed 3D. The biggest challenge when authoring a 3D disc, reportedly, has to do with the fact that HD LCD monitors are progressive-scan rather than interlaced, and authoring companies can’t count on the consumer to have the right monitor. How then, can pirating 3D content even be worth the effort?

Even with the lack of ability to copy in 3D, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any piracy issues for 3D movies. "The problem is that pirates can camcorder a 3D movie and can produce a pretty good 2D copy," said Zhao. Who is the audience for pirated movies…people downloading from the internet or buying a DVD off the street for $5. Do they care if the movie is in 3D?

Tim Sassoon of Sassoon Film Design says "camming" in stereo 3D presents some additional technical challenges, but they aren't insuperable, either in a theater or at home. "Pirates will try to copy 3D material if there's a healthy 3D home entertainment market, and films are worth copying. I don't think that piracy will be any different for 3D movies than for any other type of movie. The entertainment industry often plans their DRM on the assumption that commercial pirates are interested in making a quality product, when in fact they're usually far more interested in time to market."

Alison Casey of Futuresource Consulting says while she agrees that those buying pirated copies don’t care about quality, in actuality the experience of viewing a pirate movie is improving anyway. "The internet easily allows for identical copies to be made and the growth of HD camcorder results in movies recorded in theatres being much better resolution albeit sound quality and interruption in viewing from people walking in front of the camera! There is talk of making it a criminal offence to take a camcorder into a movie theater, at the moment it is a civil offense." The law has changed in certain U.S. states like New York, and there have been some successful prosecutions as a result.

In terms of the effectiveness of watermarking, as with any movie recorded on a camcorder, it can be traced via the digital watermark back to the original location screen where it was taped. I'm not really sure what this does in the long term; I’m guessing the pirates don’t go back to the theater again. However, a major problem with piracy goes beyond the movie theater camcorders. It all has to do with pre-releases, and that’s true for any content. Frankly, I was surprised to hear that The Dark Knight and others were being distributed on Blu-ray screeners. The content will obviously be fabulous, but how big is the crack in the armor once those are sent out? Remember the scandal with the Academy Awards screeners that were stolen a couple of years ago?

Warner Home Video, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment have all introduced e-screener programs so that retailers can download or stream copy-protected films to their computers, according to a report in Video Business. Some retailers are reportedly not satisfied with the e-screeners because they feel the quality is not appreciated as it is with DVD. Maybe the not-so-good quality is intentional, but that all comes back to the original point. Do pirates care about quality?

AACS's watermarking and analog constraints put on a disc "are aimed at preventing a full HD program copy to be made to a disc, and played back on a compliant hardware player. Very few movie torrents are even in full standard-def, let alone HD, and that they're most often viewed on a computer," says Sassoon.

What has seemed to help in the area of piracy has nothing to do with 3D or HD. According to Casey, "Consumers don’t want to wait 2-3 months to see a title on DVD. In Russia, the DVD market has been boosted, and the pirate market curtailed, by releasing titles onto DVD two to four seeks after the theatrical release rather than 12-16 weeks." Couple this with lower prices, and piracy has gone from 95 percent of the market to 50 percent in the major cities, she adds.

So is putting out 3D movies on DVD or Blu-ray before the end of their theatrical run the answer to piracy? Maybe, but it's not one Hollywood is likely to pursue. "Given the movement to alternative viewing devices and the apparent demise of Managed Copy, and an authoring fee structure discouraging to smaller publishers, I'm of the sad opinion that strong DRM will probably end up hurting the packaged media business much more than it will help," Sassoon says. "The best way to combat piracy in the long run might actually be to move to a free, advertiser-supported model, like most other content on the web, or for that matter like broadcast television."

I fear that Tim is right, but for the sake of the physical disc industry, hope he's wrong!

Debbie Galante Block (debgalante at is a freelance writer based in Mahopac, N.Y.

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