THOSE WHO DO NOT REMEMBER THE PAST...
There is a dangerously thin line between protected content and frustrated consumers, and Barry Fox wonders if video initiatives will be the equivalent of the short-lived and unsuccessful SDMI.
Music networking is a natural progression from music downloading. A smartphone or tablet becomes the prime source of music round the home as well as on the move. Those who don’t download can rip CDs to memory, or a hard disk server, and get the same result.
Of course many music-lovers – self included – still prefer the physical feel of a disc and printed liner notes to ethereal digital but, whether we like it or not, ‘serving’ home audio is increasingly popular. And it’s easy to do because CDs and most downloads are not copy-protected, and national laws either allow music copying for personal use, or turn a blind eye.
Movie material is, however, wrapped in copy protection that usually prevents, or at least hinders and stigmatizes, transfer to a server. US and European laws strenuously prohibit circumvention of the protection. Hence the pantomime procedures adopted by some companies that sell video networking devices. The server leaves the factory legally ‘clean’, with no way to rip a movie disc to its hard drive. But the manufacturer tells its dealers how to tell their customers how to install and activate software which defeats video copy protection. So only the end user is breaking the law.
Attempts at legitimizing this process with ‘managed copying’ have so far failed. The Blu-Ray Disc Association and Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator, LLC (AACS LA) (the consortium formed in 2004 by Disney, Intel, Microsoft, Panasonic, Warner Bros, IBM, Toshiba and Sony) have been promising Managed Copy provisions since before BD was launched. Supposedly a standard has been agreed but new hardware will be needed to handle the protection processing. The FAQ information on the torpid AACS website is still “coming soon”. The latest AACS press release is dated 2007. (http://www.aacsla.com/faq/)
Since 2001 Californian company Kaleidescape has been developing and offering a system that delivers managed copies without defeating copy protection; a hard disk server makes digital copies of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs, with their copy protection still intact. But the movie industry objected and cases have been in and out of courts since 2007. The latest ruling, from a four-week trial in the California Superior Court, went against Kaleidascape. But the company is appealing, again, and this will take at least another year. (www.kaleidescape.com)
Now we have the promise of Project Phenix [for more information on the announcment, see our story here], a new joint venture between Fox, Warner, SanDisk, Western Digital and the newly formed Secure Content Storage Association. The objective is clear; to let consumers legitimately store 1080p copies of Blu-ray Discs, DVDs and downloads on home or portable hard drives and memory devices. The video material can then be networked round the home and remotely accessed online. But how this will be achieved is far from clear. Try Googling “Phenix” and “Secure Content Storage Association” for hard fact information and you will very quickly become very frustrated.
The technical and legal barriers to reaching industry-wide agreement could take years to flatten and the SCSA’s promise to make Phenix “work with the industry-backed UltraViolet ecosystem” surely adds to challenge. As the BD boys have found to their cost, setting a standard is only the beginning; getting it into hardware and consumers’ homes is the real challenge.
Because our industry has a notoriously short memory, it pays here to remember SDMI, which can loosely be described as the audio equivalent of Phenix. It failed miserably with far-reaching consequences.
The Secure Digital Musical Initiative was formed in late 1998, to develop a system that would replace unprotected MP3 for music recording and distribution. The aim was to “protect the playing, storing, and distributing of digital music such that a new market for digital music may emerge.”
More than two hundred companies in the IT, consumer electronics, telecoms and security industries spent a large fortune on research and on air fares and hotel bills as they met in exotic locations round the world try to hammer out a music control and protection standard. Their target was something – indeed anything – other than MP3.
It all sounded relatively simple on paper. SDMI protection would inaudibly watermark the music, in a way that was sufficiently robust to withstand internet distribution and analogue copying, and standardized hardware would look for the watermark and play only music with a watermark that permitted play. The watermark had to be undetectable and unremovable as well as inaudible. The top brains in technology hammered away at the task and US company Verance (better known now for its work with Cinavia for movie and Blu-ray audio watermarking) developed an approved system.
In September 2000 the SDMI threw their agreed solution open to challenge by posting protected samples and inviting anyone interested to try and hack the protection. A group led by Edward Felten of Princeton University quickly removed the watermark. Much unseemly squabbling ensued and when Felten said he would explain what he had done in an academic paper, the SDMI, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and Verance threatened legal action.
Felten withdrew his planned seminar presentation, but revealed how he had been threatened and told how he had deliberately rejected the offer of prize money so that he was free to publish. After more squabbling, denials, backtracking and legal manoeuvring, Felten finally published his findings in 2001. In the meantime the respected president of the SDMI, Leonardo Chiariglione, had walked away. The SDMI formally folded in May 2001 and was soon forgotten.
With the record industry in disarray over SDMI, and still vehemently anti-MP3, Apple steamed in with the iTunes online music store in 2003. iTunes kept the record companies happy by using AAC coding and proprietary FairPlay DRM. But Apple refused to license FairPlay to anyone else.
After several years of headless chicken behaviour the record companies finally saw that the only way to compete with Apple was to start doing the very thing they had so long resisted and the very reason for SDMI’s existence; they agreed to the sale of music downloads in MP3 without protection and DRM. So audio networking is unobstructed.
Meanwhile, the expiry of the master patents on CD left first Macrovision and then others free to tinker with the CD standard and add CD copy protection. This could have hindered audio networking. But Sony BMG took things much further – and far too far – with the infamous XCP CD protection system in 2005.
XCP left Sony hit by claims and court cases after outsiders discovered what Sony either did not know or wanted to keep secret; XCP put ‘rootkit’ software on consumers’ PCs, leaving them wide open to virus infection from the internet. It cost Sony at least $5 million in settlements for consumers’ computers damaged by XCP.
The bottom lines are that the acceptance of unprotected MP3 and the demise of CD copy protection have nurtured the growth of legal (or quasi-legal) audio networking. It is now inevitable that one way or another, legal video/movie networking will grow too. If UltraViolet and Phenix prove to be another SDMI, Apple will again be the winner.