Imagine someone creeping into your living room and tweaking your DVD player so that it no longer played any discs. Or what about a DVD disc that didn't like the look of your television, and so only displayed low-quality video pictures? Such scenarios are theoretically possible with a new digital rights management (DRM) system being rolled out by the video industry, PC companies and consumer electronics firms.
What is more, under the new system, no one need enter your home to disable your video player. Little wonder, then, that Mike Evangelist, a former director of product marketing for Apple Computer, describes the new system as sinister and has set up the HD Boycott Web site (www.hdboycott.com), urging people not to buy high definition (HD) discs and players. But those behind the technology say we should welcome the new flexibility it will bring to using digital video content.
This year sees the launch of a new generation of home video systems, HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc, which offer high definition video and are seen as the successors to DVDs. DVD was launched with anti-piracy technology that was easily cracked. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, video piracy now costs the industry about US$3.5 billion annually, mostly through pirated discs. In 2004, the MPAA seized more than 76 million such discs worldwide, an increase of 44 percent from 2003.
The film and video industries are determined not to let the same thing happen with HD-DVD and Blu-ray, so they have backed a powerful and sophisticated DRM technology called AACS (Advanced Access Content System), co-developed by Sony, Toshiba, Intel, IBM, Panasonic, Microsoft, Warner Brothers and Disney. The group has formed the AACS LA (Licensing Administrator) to issue AACS licences (www.aacsla.com).
Too much control?
But in their efforts to combat piracy, some believe the entertainment industry will have too much control over how consumers can use both software and hardware.
AACS uses industrial-strength encryption technology and an elaborate key-based system for authenticating hardware and software.
These keys can be modified at any time, so that if unlicensed players or drives come on to the market, updated keys can be added to new video releases. The new keys could restrict playback to older title releases or even disable a Blu-ray or HD-DVD player by modifying its firmware. But Michael Ayers, a spokesman for AACS LA, says such steps would not be taken lightly: "It couldn't be done unilaterally by one party."
But as Seth Schoen, staff technologist of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www. eff.org), points out, this system won't help reduce piracy: "The key management system is aimed at preventing people from making unauthorized players, not from making unauthorized copies, and it probably won't prevent file sharing either."
Schoen believes technologies like AACS will stifle innovation and competition: "It's easier to see why major electronics companies and Microsoft are keen on AACS: because it will help them curtail competition among players and stop anyone from introducing unforeseen disruptive innovations in the home entertainment market. The VCR, TiVo, and Slingbox have all come from nowhere and shaken things up; major manufacturers and entertainment companies would like to see that this doesn't happen again."
AACS also has the ability to degrade the high definition video signal sent to a TV or monitor if the user has an unprotected digital or analogue connection between a player and display device. But Ayres says most studios have indicated they won't use this facility and if they do, it will have to be highlighted on software packaging.
But such assurances have not placated everyone.
"The most objectionable aspect of AACS is that it allows the seller to retain control of the use of the disc forever," Evangelist says.
"They can determine what devices will play it, how and where it can be copied and used, and even change the quality of the output depending on whether or not the devices are `approved.' The providers can change the rules whenever they like. You will no longer have any certainty about what you can do with your own property, now or in the future."
Schoen adds: "It's conceptually creepy that someone can take away functionality from a product after you bought it. That said, this particular problem is now pervasive in high technology, not just in DRM. A mobile-phone carrier can take away functionality from a phone after you bought it. If you use a non-open source operating system, your operating system developer can take away functionality from your computer afterwards. So this is a broad trend and I would not single out AACS revocation for unique criticism."
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