BURBANK, Calif. Just as PC and consumer electronics manufacturers stand poised to deploy a digital content protection scheme, Hollywood studios are again insisting on changes to the hard-won Digital Transmission Content Protection (DTCP) specification.
The move by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its member studios threatens to undermine two years of work to forge a protection scheme for next-generation TVs, set-top boxes, DVD players and other consumer recording devices that use the IEEE 1394 high-speed digital interface.
The conflict also raises vexing policy questions about consumer expectations as digital recording technology takes off, and about the ability of movie makers and other content providers to restrict copying.
The impact of a delay in DTCP's arrival could be minimal for set-top box makers, according to one source. But the repercussions of the renewed debate cast a pall over PC makers prime targets for a film industry concerned about the potential for unauthorized copying of content from PCs.
For the studios, the issue ultimately boils down to who gets to decide how copyrighted content should be protected as it travels from analog to digital devices, from broadcast to storage, and from DVD to the Internet.
"We believe the owner of the programming should determine how it can be copied," an MPAA spokesman said.
While the studios complain that the copy protection specification lacks rigor, its developers insist that all parties knew what was coming and that deployment shouldn't be delayed. Many in the electronics industry say they're convinced that the specification was well-understood by Hollywood, noting that the spec had gotten a full airing in such cross-industry forums as the Copy Protection Technical Working Group. Electronics industry executives were to bring the matter before the working group at a meeting here next week.
Determined to maintain control over their copyrighted material as digital media converge, however, MPAA members are demanding that DTCP developers install a host of new, more stringent safeguards. These include changes in encoding rules, new measures to restrict Internet transmission and protection mechanisms at the interface between PC monitors and subsystems.
DTCP was developed by the so-called "5C" group of PC and consumer heavy-hitters: Hitachi, Intel, Matsushita, Sony and Toshiba. The spec defines a cryptographic protocol to protect audio/video entertainment from illegal copying, interception and tampering as it traverses high-performance digital buses such as 1394.
The movie industry argues that DTCP should be used more widely than the current spec dictates, including for Internet and over-the-air broadcasts. Furthermore, filmmakers want 5C backers, particularly on the PC side, to do more to protect Hollywood movies from future copying threats. These include movies being retransmitted over the World Wide Web or being captured and stored, via an unprotected interface linking a PC and monitor, into yet-to-be-developed recording devices for massive copying.
If movie makers get what they want, advocacy groups said, the feud could severely limit the way consumers use PCs and other machines for displaying, copying or retransmitting copyrighted content over the Internet.
"These are thorny issues," said an executive at a major Hollywood studio who requested anonymity. "Solutions need to balance the interests of consumers, who ought to be able to do things they are legitimately allowed to do, [with those of] PC and consumer companies who want to sell as many recording devices as possible, while [also] protecting claims of copyright owners."
He added, "We believe that 5C can play a very important part. The 5Cs can legitimately impose conditions" on copyrighted content to restrict Internet retransmission, he said.
For technology companies, the MPAA's last-minute nitpicks came as a surprise. "We delivered what we had promised," said Michael Moradzadeh, Intel Corp.'s director of external legal affairs. The 5Cs designed the DTCP spec to be "only used for blocking certain forms of copying, such as DVD disks and pay-per-view" programming, Moradzadeh said.
Consumer and PC companies are thus far unwilling to allow studios to modify the scheme to inhibit copying of movies in unprecedented and unanticipated ways. "The major sticking point is the circumstances under which material can be encoded so it can't be copied," said an attorney close to the 5C-MPAA talks.
As now drafted, the DTCP spec allows studios to encode content with copy control information such as copy-freely, copy-never, copy-one-generation or no-more-copies. Armed with the new technology, "Studio guys want to be able to use that big hammer of 'no copy' even for things like over-the-air broadcasting," said another industry source. If this tack is pursued, the movie industry would be seeking "serious policy changes," said Moradzadeh.
Ruth Rodgers, executive director of the Home Recording Rights Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group that includes consumers, retailers and manufacturers, agreed. The group backed proposed legislation to protect consumer rights: A compromise provision in the 1996 Digital Video Recording Act created "encoding rules" that would have allowed viewers to make a single copy of material broadcast over cable or satellite channels. It did not permit restrictive encoding of subscription cable or satellite services, Rodgers said.
Although the law was never enacted, it has been widely assumed that technologies capable of limiting consumer viewing and recording should adhere to standards developed under the compromise encoding-rule framework. If programmers are exempted from those rules, "encryption could be used to prevent not only recording, but also viewing," warned Rodgers. "That would be totally unacceptable" to consumers.
Noting that 5C members have a vested interest in selling as many recording devices as possible, one studio executive said, "All we are saying is, 'Gee, isn't it kind of unfair for you [5C] to decide when and how the DTCP should be applied, and how copyrighted content should be protected?' "
So far, the MPAA spokesman said, "There hasn't been any resolution in terms of who gets to call the shots on who gets to make copies." Hollywood is still looking for a compromise and will support any technology solution that respects the rights of copyright holders, he said.
But the 5C group is also digging in its heels. "We are not comfortable with putting all power [on how to adopt the DTCP spec] in the hands of studios," said Intel's Moradzadeh.
Asked if the movie industry is dragging its feet, an attorney representing the 5C group said the latest wrinkle isn't part of a campaign to delay DTCP's rollout. "I believe [MPAA] wants a copyright solution in this space. I don't think they are deliberately delaying," the attorney said.
The bickering is expected to have little immediate impact on consumer system OEMs, according to an industry source. "I don't see any delays." He noted that OEMs could build millions of boxes for cable or satellite set-tops with DTCP-enabled 1394 interfaces, store them and ship them some time next year, when the debate is resolved.
However, it is unclear how any compromise might affect the PC industry. For the machine that's sitting in the catbird seat as far as digital convergence is concerned, MPAA has concerns on two fronts: Internet retransmission and the PC-subsystem interface. At this point, the Internet is the bigger bogeyman.
Though today's technologies can't deliver high-quality video, sources said, it is conceivable that someone who buys a $3 pay-per-view movie might one day copy it and distribute it via e-mail. It may also be possible to take a movie broadcast for viewers in one location and stream it over the Internet to those half a world away.
With DTCP, a pay-per-view movie could be successfully blocked from Internet retransmission if it were marked with appropriate copy control information. According to a computer industry lawyer, however, doing so raises questions about whether "unprotected content" such as free, broadcast programming should be blocked from the Internet.
'No Net retransmission'
Hollywood wants the 5Cs to include such conditions as "no Internet retransmission" in the DTCP specifications so that "it would be much easier, on a long-term [basis], to manage the situation where everything can be connected and retransmitted digitally, when the high-speed connection becomes available," said a movie industry executive.
Intel's Moradzadeh remained skeptical. "As one of the originators of 5C, we are not convinced that DTCP is the right solution for such a huge end-to-end problem," he said. The 5Cs insist the DTCP spec was primarily designed to protect "just the wire" connecting a set-top and a digital TV or a PC.
If done right, Internet retransmission of video entertainment should provide a huge opportunity for studios, said Moradzadeh. "But we also do understand the same opportunity can become a risk for them," he said.
Besides Internet issues, Hollywood also wants a way to secure the interface between a computer and a monitor. In theory, by allowing 1,000-line high-resolution copyrighted material to traverse "in the clear," with no copy protection, an unprotected interface could become a conduit for mass copying, according to the studio executive. Anyone could "attach a video-recording storage device" to that interface to capture and copy the content, he said.
A digital interface linking a digital display and the PC's graphics subsystems is already in the offing, according to Moradzadeh. The upcoming Digital Visual Interface which has been demonstrated to key Hollywood studios will feature an associated Intel-developed copy protection scheme, he said. "We think that could solve our problems," said another studio executive.
The link that concerns Hollywood more, however, is the one currently used to hook an analog SVGA monitor with a PC subsystem. Unless copy protection can be provided for this analog interface, some studios are insisting that PCs should not be allowed to display, for example, the full resolution of movies broadcast in high-definition format.
"Perhaps it should be constrained to standard-definition format," said a movie industry source, so that pristine copies of high-definition movies would not flood the counterfeit market.
That idea raises hackles in the PC world. "Forcing a rule to provide something that is below the consumer expectation is a prescription for failure," said one attorney following the effort.
"Can it work? Could this be acceptable to our users?" asked Moradzadeh. "Our industry is spending billions of dollars to make the users' experience more satisfying. Telling them that three-quarters of the HD picture they paid for needs to be taken away over some hypothetical concerns that Hollywood studios have is a difficult story to sell."
Responded a studio executive, "The PC industry needs to understand the cost of having a victory" over the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that Congress approved last fall. The law prohibits manufacturing and distributing the means to circumvent technology that protects copyrighted materials. To ensure that legitimate multipurpose devices can continue to be made and sold, the prohibition applies not to PCs but only to devices designed or produced expressly for circumvention.
Since PCs are exempted, movie industry sources said, the law allows copyright holders to develop technology protecting their content. "And that's why we believe that 5C becomes so important, and we are asking the PC industry to take effective measures," a movie official said.
MPAA and 5C members have been meeting weekly for several months on these matters. The debate is expected to be raised though not settled at this week's Copy Protection Technical Working Group meeting. "As long as both parties are talking, I take it as a good sign," said Rodgers, the consumer activist.
One studio executive said it was possible the two sides could come to terms within the next few weeks. Moradzadeh said his goal is to get most issues resolved before the end of the year.