Hollywood’s Way Out New distribution platform is solution for copyright theft

Hollywood’s Way Out New distribution platform is solution for copyright theft

 

Hollywood’s Way Out New distribution platform is solution for copyright theft

 


Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, May 9, 2002

URL: sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/gate/archive/2002/05/09/hrdwresol.DTL

The debate about what to do about intellectual-property rights in the digital age usually revolves around two starkly different views about how the world should work.

One side, led mostly by big entertainment companies, say copyrights must be protected at virtually all costs, even if that means legislating mandatory changes to technology that make it impossible to copy songs or videos without prior authorization from the copyright owner. This side contends that without such protections, there will be no incentive to produce or distribute new music or expensive movie and TV productions. Copy everything freely, they say, and soon there won’t be anything new worth copying. South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings is the champion of this crowd. His proposed Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, if enacted, would require that any new hardware or software sold in the U.S. contain anti-copying technology approved by the federal government.

On the other side are techies and consumer groups, many of whom vigorously oppose such proposals. They don’t want anyone interfering with their ability to use their computers, and other devices such as TiVO and ReplayTV digital video recorders, any way they please. This group says that if Congress becomes the arbiter of what the electronics industry can produce, technological progress will be significantly curtailed. As a result, leadership in tech markets will gradually shift away from the United States toward locales that impose fewer restrictions. The digital genie simply can’t be stuffed back into the bottle, they say.

What’s more, attempts to do so remind many of Big Brother. Hollings’ newly proposed law to strengthen copyright protection, opponents note, would require government-mandated monitoring of what people view or listen to in the privacy of their homes, offices and autos.

There is merit to both sides of this dichotomous debate. What’s missing, though, is a third, more palatable alternative, one that would give Hollywood the freedom to protect its revenue streams without permanently damaging the American computer industry’s ability to innovate.

Clearly, the government should not take the unpopular, draconian step of requiring that all future electronics devices monitor consumer viewing, reading or listening habits. What makes more sense is to let the marketplace, not the government, determine the contours of the increasingly intertwined electronics and entertainment industries.

If Hollywood is really serious about what it says — that there can be no viable commercial art without strict copyright controls — then all Hollywood has to do is introduce its own secure, copy-protected consumer-electronics devices as an alternative to existing computers, radios and TVs, which consumers would continue to use any way they see fit, including copying digital files.

Artists and producers would then have a choice. Do they want to release their works into the open digital world, where those creations can be freely copied and distributed? Or do they want to release their wares via a closed system where they can be more certain that every member of their audience pays up (or is exposed to advertising) first?

In short, both visions of the future should — and can — compete freely. In fact, any other solution seems down right un-American.

The idea is practical, although phasing it in would be a bit inconvenient.

In the end, there is ample reason to believe that most consumers would be willing to buy a new TV set if it turns out to be the only way they can watch their favorite shows. The average American home already has 2.4 TVs (which means many homes have more), so forcing consumers to buy one more set capable of receiving what are essentially closed-circuit broadcasts would not be that big a deal, particularly for America’s legion of highly motivated couch potatoes.

Some avid sports fans, for example, simply can’t imagine missing a Giants game, or the 49ers. For others it’s the soaps, or “West Wing,” or the news. Not everyone would buy a new TV (or a new radio or CD player, for that matter) for the same reasons. But almost everyone who watches TV or listens to music has at least one reason they would buy a new set if they had to. Remember, these are the same people who already pay upwards of $100 each for the cheap seats at a U2 stadium concert, which lasts just a few hours. Clearly, the public is willing, even eager, to pay for the entertainment it desires.

What’s more, the coming switchover to high-definition TV, which will require new sets in all our homes, provides a perfect opening to introduce such an alternative. In one respect, this idea isn’t new at all. Most consumers already have several entertainment devices — such as cable set-top boxes that get premium channels, or DVD players — that let them watch or listen to sundry types of programming on assorted machines, often in various locations in their homes.

One good way to build such an alternative system (which would also work for radios and CD and DVD players) would be to eliminate the usual digital audio and video outputs found on virtually all of today’s consumer-electronics devices. Instead, they would be replaced by “smart outputs” that would pipe sound and video, or sound or video alone, only to equipment authorized to receive those transmissions.

A variety of available technologies exist that make this possible. One, for example, is to build intelligence into speakers and screens, rather than into the boxes themselves, and then require that those devices be connected to the Internet or to a rechargeable smart card that would continually refresh the security codes they need to keep operating (the codes could change weekly, daily, or even minute by minute). Plug an unauthorized speaker or screen or computer into the entertainment device and you get nothing — no sound, no video, not even a scrambled signal that can be descrambled.

This is similar to the way some virtual private networks (VPNs) work. It’s also the same basic security methodology used by the White House to safeguard the ever-changing security codes the president needs to launch a nuclear attack. Changing the codes regularly makes it much harder for anyone, hackers included, to permanently crack the system. It would not be completely infallible (nothing is), but, at a minimum, the days of easy point-click-and-send copying would be over for recordings broadcast over the new, secure no-digital-outputs platform.

This strategy is bound to be more effective than any of the industry’s technically inept anti-piracy efforts, which these days revolve mostly around encryption or building “inaudible” distortions into recorded CDs and DVDs that are designed to make copying via computers impossible without hisses and pops. (The problem with the first approach, of course, is that anything that can be encrypted can eventually be decrypted. Likewise, CDs programmed with “inaudible” distortions have already proven to be unpopular with consumers, in part, because they often don’t work properly in many existing CD players).

Data-security experts may eventually come up with better approaches, but the only way I can see to reliably prevent consumers from making and sharing perfect digital copies is to make it impossible for them to get access to digital outputs.

To be sure, people could still make analog copies of “secure” broadcasts or recordings, for example, by putting a microphone next to the speakers of these new devices. Likewise, one could use a camcorder to copy action on a screen. But the result would be low-quality copies, not exact digital replicas. Essentially, this would put the entertainment industry back to where it was a decade or so ago — where it wants to be — back when bootleg tapes sounded like the unauthorized copies they were.

Once the schematics for such devices are agreed on, any interested media companies could just announce that, effective a certain date, their programs or recordings can be played only on devices that adhere to the technical requirements set for the entertainment industry’s new secure digital platform. The entertainment business might even subsidize the purchase of these new boxes, perhaps though discounts on certain programming options.

That way, consumers would be able to buy two types of consumer electronics: the type that exists today, which would let them continue to make high-quality digital copies of anything they have, and another, more secure version that would essentially be the entertainment industry’s pipeline into our homes, one that does not permit perfect digital copies.

Over time, in the true spirit of American capitalism, we’d learn which distribution system works best and for which purposes. There is surely room on the digital battlefield for both ideas. In fact, if both distribution methods are encouraged to prosper, each could be strengthened in the process.

A recording artist might, for example, decide to release one track to the open system, where it can be copied freely, and reserve the rest of her album for the closed system, where only paying customers can listen. If I’m right, good artists will become famous faster, while at the same time making more money from a larger pool of fans eager to pay for their closed works.

The key to this system is an understanding that for everyone to win, no one has to lose. This idea, of course, does nothing to prevent illegal copying of pirated works already floating around in cyberspace. But that horse is already out of the barn. None of the entertainment industry’s current proposals, including the Hollings bill, offer a practical way to stop the sharing of digital files that already exist.

The only question now is, where do we go from here? Do we move toward a world where the federal government monitors and controls every bit of data that passes through our electronic devices? Or do we create a world where the entertainment industry gets what it says it needs by building a secure delivery platform that it programs and controls, one that consumers can either opt into or opt out of?

Fortunately, unlike the other technical windmills it is now tilting at, the entertainment industry can get started on implementing this fix right away, without need of government intervention, more lawsuits or additional legal assaults on the high-tech economy or the legitimate rights of consumers.

What I wonder is, does the entertainment industry really believe its own rhetoric? Is it really true that great art follows the money, and that requiring every consumer to pay is the only way to keep high-quality entertainment programming flowing?

If so, the entertainment world should get on with the task of proving that case in the one place where it would really matter: the marketplace.

If it’s right, Hollywood’s best — and most lucrative — days could still lie ahead. Hollywood’s Way Out
New distribution platform is solution for copyright theft
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, May 9, 2002

URL: sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/gate/archive/2002/05/09/hrdwresol.DTL

The debate about what to do about intellectual-property rights in the digital age usually revolves around two starkly different views about how the world should work.

One side, led mostly by big entertainment companies, say copyrights must be protected at virtually all costs, even if that means legislating mandatory changes to technology that make it impossible to copy songs or videos without prior authorization from the copyright owner. This side contends that without such protections, there will be no incentive to produce or distribute new music or expensive movie and TV productions. Copy everything freely, they say, and soon there won’t be anything new worth copying. South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings is the champion of this crowd. His proposed Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, if enacted, would require that any new hardware or software sold in the U.S. contain anti-copying technology approved by the federal government.

On the other side are techies and consumer groups, many of whom vigorously oppose such proposals. They don’t want anyone interfering with their ability to use their computers, and other devices such as TiVO and ReplayTV digital video recorders, any way they please. This group says that if Congress becomes the arbiter of what the electronics industry can produce, technological progress will be significantly curtailed. As a result, leadership in tech markets will gradually shift away from the United States toward locales that impose fewer restrictions. The digital genie simply can’t be stuffed back into the bottle, they say.

What’s more, attempts to do so remind many of Big Brother. Hollings’ newly proposed law to strengthen copyright protection, opponents note, would require government-mandated monitoring of what people view or listen to in the privacy of their homes, offices and autos.

There is merit to both sides of this dichotomous debate. What’s missing, though, is a third, more palatable alternative, one that would give Hollywood the freedom to protect its revenue streams without permanently damaging the American computer industry’s ability to innovate.

Clearly, the government should not take the unpopular, draconian step of requiring that all future electronics devices monitor consumer viewing, reading or listening habits. What makes more sense is to let the marketplace, not the government, determine the contours of the increasingly intertwined electronics and entertainment industries.

If Hollywood is really serious about what it says — that there can be no viable commercial art without strict copyright controls — then all Hollywood has to do is introduce its own secure, copy-protected consumer-electronics devices as an alternative to existing computers, radios and TVs, which consumers would continue to use any way they see fit, including copying digital files.

Artists and producers would then have a choice. Do they want to release their works into the open digital world, where those creations can be freely copied and distributed? Or do they want to release their wares via a closed system where they can be more certain that every member of their audience pays up (or is exposed to advertising) first?

In short, both visions of the future should — and can — compete freely. In fact, any other solution seems down right un-American.

The idea is practical, although phasing it in would be a bit inconvenient.

In the end, there is ample reason to believe that most consumers would be willing to buy a new TV set if it turns out to be the only way they can watch their favorite shows. The average American home already has 2.4 TVs (which means many homes have more), so forcing consumers to buy one more set capable of receiving what are essentially closed-circuit broadcasts would not be that big a deal, particularly for America’s legion of highly motivated couch potatoes.

Some avid sports fans, for example, simply can’t imagine missing a Giants game, or the 49ers. For others it’s the soaps, or “West Wing,” or the news. Not everyone would buy a new TV (or a new radio or CD player, for that matter) for the same reasons. But almost everyone who watches TV or listens to music has at least one reason they would buy a new set if they had to. Remember, these are the same people who already pay upwards of $100 each for the cheap seats at a U2 stadium concert, which lasts just a few hours. Clearly, the public is willing, even eager, to pay for the entertainment it desires.

What’s more, the coming switchover to high-definition TV, which will require new sets in all our homes, provides a perfect opening to introduce such an alternative. In one respect, this idea isn’t new at all. Most consumers already have several entertainment devices — such as cable set-top boxes that get premium channels, or DVD players — that let them watch or listen to sundry types of programming on assorted machines, often in various locations in their homes.

One good way to build such an alternative system (which would also work for radios and CD and DVD players) would be to eliminate the usual digital audio and video outputs found on virtually all of today’s consumer-electronics devices. Instead, they would be replaced by “smart outputs” that would pipe sound and video, or sound or video alone, only to equipment authorized to receive those transmissions.

A variety of available technologies exist that make this possible. One, for example, is to build intelligence into speakers and screens, rather than into the boxes themselves, and then require that those devices be connected to the Internet or to a rechargeable smart card that would continually refresh the security codes they need to keep operating (the codes could change weekly, daily, or even minute by minute). Plug an unauthorized speaker or screen or computer into the entertainment device and you get nothing — no sound, no video, not even a scrambled signal that can be descrambled.

This is similar to the way some virtual private networks (VPNs) work. It’s also the same basic security methodology used by the White House to safeguard the ever-changing security codes the president needs to launch a nuclear attack. Changing the codes regularly makes it much harder for anyone, hackers included, to permanently crack the system. It would not be completely infallible (nothing is), but, at a minimum, the days of easy point-click-and-send copying would be over for recordings broadcast over the new, secure no-digital-outputs platform.

This strategy is bound to be more effective than any of the industry’s technically inept anti-piracy efforts, which these days revolve mostly around encryption or building “inaudible” distortions into recorded CDs and DVDs that are designed to make copying via computers impossible without hisses and pops. (The problem with the first approach, of course, is that anything that can be encrypted can eventually be decrypted. Likewise, CDs programmed with “inaudible” distortions have already proven to be unpopular with consumers, in part, because they often don’t work properly in many existing CD players).

Data-security experts may eventually come up with better approaches, but the only way I can see to reliably prevent consumers from making and sharing perfect digital copies is to make it impossible for them to get access to digital outputs.

To be sure, people could still make analog copies of “secure” broadcasts or recordings, for example, by putting a microphone next to the speakers of these new devices. Likewise, one could use a camcorder to copy action on a screen. But the result would be low-quality copies, not exact digital replicas. Essentially, this would put the entertainment industry back to where it was a decade or so ago — where it wants to be — back when bootleg tapes sounded like the unauthorized copies they were.

Once the schematics for such devices are agreed on, any interested media companies could just announce that, effective a certain date, their programs or recordings can be played only on devices that adhere to the technical requirements set for the entertainment industry’s new secure digital platform. The entertainment business might even subsidize the purchase of these new boxes, perhaps though discounts on certain programming options.

That way, consumers would be able to buy two types of consumer electronics: the type that exists today, which would let them continue to make high-quality digital copies of anything they have, and another, more secure version that would essentially be the entertainment industry’s pipeline into our homes, one that does not permit perfect digital copies.

Over time, in the true spirit of American capitalism, we’d learn which distribution system works best and for which purposes. There is surely room on the digital battlefield for both ideas. In fact, if both distribution methods are encouraged to prosper, each could be strengthened in the process.

A recording artist might, for example, decide to release one track to the open system, where it can be copied freely, and reserve the rest of her album for the closed system, where only paying customers can listen. If I’m right, good artists will become famous faster, while at the same time making more money from a larger pool of fans eager to pay for their closed works.

The key to this system is an understanding that for everyone to win, no one has to lose. This idea, of course, does nothing to prevent illegal copying of pirated works already floating around in cyberspace. But that horse is already out of the barn. None of the entertainment industry’s current proposals, including the Hollings bill, offer a practical way to stop the sharing of digital files that already exist.

The only question now is, where do we go from here? Do we move toward a world where the federal government monitors and controls every bit of data that passes through our electronic devices? Or do we create a world where the entertainment industry gets what it says it needs by building a secure delivery platform that it programs and controls, one that consumers can either opt into or opt out of?

Fortunately, unlike the other technical windmills it is now tilting at, the entertainment industry can get started on implementing this fix right away, without need of government intervention, more lawsuits or additional legal assaults on the high-tech economy or the legitimate rights of consumers.

What I wonder is, does the entertainment industry really believe its own rhetoric? Is it really true that great art follows the money, and that requiring every consumer to pay is the only way to keep high-quality entertainment programming flowing?

If so, the entertainment world should get on with the task of proving that case in the one place where it would really matter: the marketplace.

If it’s right, Hollywood’s best — and most lucrative — days could still lie ahead.

About the Author /

hplotkin@plotkin.com

<p>My published work since 1985 has focused mostly on public policy, technology, science, education and business. I’ve written more than 600 articles for a variety of magazines, journals and newspapers on these often interrelated subjects. The topics I have covered include analysis of progressive approaches to higher education, entrepreneurial trends, e-learning strategies, business management, open source software, alternative energy research and development, voting technologies, streaming media platforms, online electioneering, biotech research, patent and tax law reform, federal nanotechnology policies and tech stocks.</p>