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Paying for Protection: The Cost and Complications of DVD Piracy Prevention

Debbie Galante Block

June 2001 | It was a sticking point in the DVD-Video launch, and, four years later, it's hobbling the launch of DVD-Audio. All of the companies interested in putting out content on DVD–music, movie, computer software–are working together to establish an industry consensus copy control watermark, according to Brad Hunt, CTO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). But the reality is that Hollywood and the music industry have always been aggressive with content protection, while software publishers have had mixed feelings about its usefulness. Meanwhile, replicators, though essential to the publishing process, feel powerless to influence copy protection choices.

Meanwhile, some in the authoring community say the debate over whether, when, or how to protect DVD content is largely moot–regardless of whose approach is in place, they're not getting the protection they need. "A developer or content owner can do very little to prevent professional piracy," says Ralph La Barge, managing partner of DVD authoring house Alpha DVD. "Professional pirates have access to DVD replication lines, so they can make bit-for-bit copies of any DVD title sold in the world." LaBarge also cites ripping DVD-Video titles into their component video and audio elements, and converting them to VideoCD as another popular form of piracy that is very difficult to prevent.

The concerns about piracy are as real as ever, but, despite the seeming flurry of activity in developing new ways to prevent it, few viable solutions exist. According to MPAA director of public affairs Emily Kutner, DVD developers currently have a dearth of choices for protecting their content, because–compared, presumably, to music CDs and gaming platform titles–DVD "piracy has not been rampant as yet." But she hastens to add, "We are preparing, because we know pirates take their business very seriously. We don't underestimate them."

The Cost of Piracy

The gaming market has always been one of the most problematic areas for piracy of copyright-protected content. Though Sony's PlayStation2 is DVD-based and Nintendo's forthcoming Gamecube will make use of 80mm DVD, no one at those companies would comment on copy protection. Although few titles are yet available in this market, looking at CD-ROM piracy provides an indication of what may come to pass when DVD software becomes readily available. American computer and video game publishers say they continue to lose billions of dollars due to global piracy. Nine out of every ten games available in Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia are pirated, according to Doug Lowenstein, president of the International Digital Software Association (IDSA). Entertainment software industry losses are estimated to reach $3 billion this year, according to IDSA estimates.

On the other side of the coin, in the last quarter of 2000, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) actually reported positive results on its anti-piracy campaigns. Of course, those figures reflect only CD-Audio titles since DVD-Audio has made no real impact in the market as yet. But according to RIAA, the volume of unauthorized CDs confiscated in 2000 dropped nearly 58% from 1999. Music industry losses are about $5 billion due to CD copying, sources say.

Exactly what needs to be done to protect DVD-Audio further is not clear. Audiophiles say encryption interferes with playback quality and fidelity–that each new element introduced onto a disc affects something else. Warner Brothers, the only major label with DVD-Audio titles in the marketplace, denies that there is any effect. Right now, there are not enough discs on the market for a consensus. Still, it's a factor to watch closely; attempts to copy-protect CD-Audio discs have often pushed the discs precariously into out-of-spec territory, which could prove problematic with first-generation DVD-Audio playback devices, as it does with rock-bottom CD portables.

The CSS Pool

Regardless of the availability of possible copy protection enhancements, the Content Scrambling System (CSS), which has been licensed to hundreds of DVD player manufacturers and DVD content distributors around the world, is still the primary copy protection device for DVD. It remains in use, of course, despite the much-publicized successful hack of the CSS code. Also, many feel that CSS encryption does not hinder piracy, as most pirated DVDs are copied bit-by-bit, with the resulting pirated discs therefore encrypted with CSS.

The MPAA currently has had lawsuits pending against individuals who have found "legal" ways to offer DeCSS programs through the Internet. The first case, filed against 2600 magazine, is on appeal after the U.S. District Court ruling that prohibited it from publishing links to DeCSS. The second case, known as the "Connecticut" case, against Jeremy Hughes, is moving slowly toward a court date. However, Kutner from the MPAA says both sides are looking toward the decision of the Second Circuit on the 2600 case to see how it may affect the outcome of the Connecticut suit.

The most recent high-profile break of CSS occurred earlier this year when MIT student Keith Winstein and alumnus Marc Horowitz published a seven-line program on a Web site. The pro- gram does not resemble DeCSS, but it accomplishes the same thing. As of this writing, no lawsuits had been filed, though Kutner says that the MPAA is still looking at the program. In the meantime, the DVD Copy Control Association, which licenses CSS technology, has reactivated the process of evaluating technologies for use in marking audio-visual content to convey certain copy control information. According to the DVD Copy Control Web site (http://www.dvdcca.org), " It is anticipated that the technology ultimately selected as part of this evaluation process will be used to enhance the CSS copy protection system, consistent with the terms of the CSS License Agreement."

A Rose by Any Other Name would Cost the Same

The MPAA's Hunt says he has found that some DVD professionals and enthusiasts have a negative impression of copy protection. For that reason, he prefers to call it content protection, which he feels more clearly defines the intention. "Content protection has benefits to consumers. If CSS had not been developed, it would have been highly unlikely that content owners would have been willing to put their movies out on DVD," he says.

When CD-ROM was first introduced, copy protection was often too much of a nuisance for legitimate customers, and did not deter serious pirates for very long. And one thing that has not changed is cost, which is a major deterrent for smaller content providers. For example, Digital Leisure has four DVD-ROM game titles currently available, none of which contain copy protection. David Foster, general manager, "DVD copy protection is more expensive than our retail price on the games. The sales in the DVD-ROM category are also not high enough to justify the time and expense of adding copy protection measures to the releases."

Many times, developers and publishers are cautioned against characterizing every stolen copy sold, shared, or distributed as a lost sale, and with good reason. (Of course, the MPAA and its optical media industry counterparts do it all the time.) Publishers are often even blamed for piracy because of high prices charged at retail, with less reason. As Alpha DVD's LaBarge points out, software prices are not based solely on desire for profits, but also on what it cost to get the titles out. "DVD title developers who operate legally have to pay royalties to both content owners and DVD technology patent holders. These royalties typically add up to several dollars or more per disc," he says.

Some of the larger companies, however, are starting to go with the flow when it comes to protecting their products, because many of today's schemes are more transparent than previous generations, and, in some cases, are actually guaranteed to work.

The gaming industry in the U.S. has probably been most aggressive with copy protection. According to Michael Yasko, the release engineer/manager at Electronic Arts, one reason is that usually when a game is played, the copy protection technology checks to see if the original CD is in the drive. But, with business applications like Photoshop, a disc doesn't have to be in the drive, which makes sense–who wants to run everyday applications off of CD-ROM, which is significantly slower than even today's most turgid hard drives? Thus, companies are looking at different ways of protecting the disc other than requiring the disc to be in the drive for the program, game, or movie to run.

"Our stuff was being pirated even before it hit the shelves," says Yasko. "So, we had several companies demonstrate their encryption schemes. Some companies have been bold enough to say, 'if our scheme is broken in the first 90 days, the licensing fee will be free!'" Macrovision technology is used on all Electronic Arts titles, but they are also evaluating other schemes to "mix the bag a little bit," he says.

Replicators like Sony Disc Manufacturing and JVC Disc America are not very opinionated when it comes down to copy protection, because, they say, content providers don't really ask for their input. The technology companies are calling on the content people, promoting how their systems work; then the replicators get licensed. With CD-ROM, there are tons of copy protection schemes, and replicators have to decide which ones they will license, because it can be costly–anywhere from $25,000-$50,000 per license–especially if there needs to be equipment additions. Most manufacturers say that, up to now, publishers have been less aggressive about copy protection, but that is beginning to change as they receive more and more inquiries every day about what licenses they have.

Technology Developments

Of course, the name that keeps coming up when you talk about DVD and copy protection is Macrovision. Between 75% and 90% of all the DVD-Videos on the market are protected by Macrovision's DVD Anti-Copy Process (ACP), according to Macrovision senior vice president for computer software copy protection Brian Dunn. The DVD ACP video process is licensed to over 300 DVD authoring houses and DVD replicators.

Macrovision's DVD copy protection process is activated during DVD authoring. The authoring facility sets certain digital-analog protection trigger bits to "on." When the disc is played back, these trigger bits activate a Macrovision-enabled digital-analog converter chip inside the player. The chip then applies copy protection to the analog output of the DVD player. This allows for transparent viewing of the original program, but causes copies made on most VCRs to be substantially degraded. There are, however, DVD-Video players available that style themselves "Macrovision-free."

In fourth quarter of 2000, TTR Technologies announced completion of its first DVD copy protection prototype based on the company's CD technology. TTR is in the midst of a development project to port its SafeAudio technology (for CD) to DVD. [See Block, "TTR Anti-Piracy Prototype to be Available This Summer," July 2000, p.22–Ed.] TTR chair Marc Tokayer says, "DVD has an advantage over CD in that there is one format for all types of content. This means that one technology can be used to protect software, audio, and video on DVD. Our proof of concept protects software, but we could have created a protected video DVD as well."

Sony Disc Manufacturing has expanded its SecuROM optical disc copy protection system for CD-R and pre-recorded CD-ROM to include anti-piracy encryption for DVD-ROM discs. SecuROM for DVD-ROM is similar to its CD-ROM predecessor, according to Johannes Stegfellner, director of SecuROM licensing. It works through the combination of a digital keycode applied to each disc, and an authentication technology that differentiates an original disc from an unauthorized copy–both are transparent to the user.

The new product utilizes the SecuROM Online Encryption Toolkit just as the CD-ROM product does. "Just with a single mouse click, encryption via the Internet can be completed in literally one minute. Time to market is further reduced with the supported in-house testing process," Stegfellner explains.

SecuROM is aimed at preventing illegal CD-R burning, hard disk recording, Internet distribution, and piracy by mass replication. "Unlike other copy protection systems, SecuROM does not provide encryption through unreadable sectors on the disc. This method results in high compatibility rates with drives on the market," Stegfellner says. SecuROM also reportedly uses very little disc space. DVD-ROM mastering and replication with SecuROM are currently available only at Sony's plant in Austria.

Greenleaf Technologies has not only found a way to protect content, but, company sources claim, a way to save money, as well. Greenleaf's system places up to 10 games on a single DVD, but the data is scrambled into an unreadable format until a consumer pays to unlock each game at the publisher's Web site.

The company will also offer a multimedia player for audio that uses MP3 or any audio encoding technology. The player resides on the computer or on any storage device that can play back content using this algorithm. The intent is to distribute the player on disc through the record labels. Like the ROM product, this product allows up to 20 albums on a disc, and the consumer can purchase the disc in the retail market or acquire it via mail-order. At that point, the user has the option to pick which album they want and subsequently unlock it. The option of purchasing any of the other albums on the disc is always there. Once the product is on a machine, it never has to be reloaded. This player works on anything you can put into a drive and insert into a computer, company sources say. Thus, they believe, it will work on formats that succeed DVD.

Considering the current state of digital content copy protection, the one thing clear today is that the future of copy protection is unclear and will likely remain so. Meanwhile, the DVD format continues to gain acceptance, recordable media and drive prices continue to drop, and piracy continues to climb. Add these facts to the aggressive growth of the Internet and the distribution channels–legal or otherwise–that they open up, and the only answer is robust copy protection. The question remains: Who will come up with the answer?

Companies Mentioned in This Article

Alpha DVD
3109 Arrowhead Farms Road, Gambrills, MD 21054; 410/721-9460; 410/721-9461; http://www.alphadvd.com

Digital Leisure, Inc.
33 Cedar Ridge Road, Gormley, Ontario, Canada L0H 1G0; http://www.digitalleisure.com

Greenleaf Technologies Corporation
8834 Capital of Texas Highway Suite #150, Austin, TX 78759; 512/343-1300; Fax 512/349-9780; 2http://www.glfc.com">http://www.glfc.com

Electronic Arts
209 Redwood Shores Parkway, Redwood City, CA 94065; 650/628-7323; http://www.ea.com

Macrovision Corporation
1341 Orleans Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA 94089; 408/743-8600; Fax 408/743-8610; http://www.macrovision.com

Sony Disc Manufacturing
1800 N. Fruitridge Avenue, Terre Haute, IN 47804; 812/462-8195; Fax 812/ 462-8866; http://sdm.sony.com

TTR Technologies, Inc.
Financial Center, The Columbus Circle Building, 1841 Broadway, 11th floor, New York, NY 10023; 212/333-3355; Fax 212/333-7891; http://www.ttrtech.com

Debbie Galante Block (debgalante@aol.com) is a freelance writer based in Mahopac, New York.

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