TOKYO Video enthusiasts in Japan have found a second backdoor in Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.'s newly launched Playstation 2. This time, fans have discovered a way to exploit the game console's analog RGB output to illegally copy DVD content to a videotape, circumventing the system's copy-protection technology. The technique is being discussed on Web sites in Japan.
The discovery of such a flaw is another blow to Sony, already embarrassed earlier this month when users in Japan found a way into Playstation 2 to subvert a geographical code for DVD video disks. So far the issue has not raised the ire of movie studios or others in the consumer electronics industry. However, it could accelerate a movement that's quietly forming behind the scenes to develop a new copy protection scheme for the legacy analog RGB interface used both in Playstation 2 and on PCs.
At issue is whether Sony Computer Entertainment has violated a DVD industry agreement that prohibits DVD players from having an analog RGB interface. If so, it's possible that Hollywood studios could take some action against Sony.
But some in the industry pointed out this week that Sony could make the case that Playstation 2 is not a standalone DVD player but a PC. Under the DVD specs, personal computers are permitted an RGB output. So far, however, Sony has not resorted to this argument.
Sony Computer Entertainment acknowledged here on Wednesday (March 22) that problems with copy protection can arise from the use of an analog RGB interface, but said the company did nothing wrong and that the RGB interface on the Playstation 2 complies with the DVD specs.
A company spokesman said that Sony installed in Playstation 2 appropriate means of preventing any illegal analog-to-analog copying, by providing security coding from Macrovision Corp. for all the system's output interface signals: RGB, composite, component and S-Video. For copy protection of analog RGB signals, Sony worked with Macrovision to add Macrovision code in RGB's synchronous signals, the Sony spokesman said.
Further, the game console comes with a cable that outputs widely used composite video signals. An optional cable outputs S-Video signals and component signals. In either case, these video signals are protected by Macrovision technology, and taped images are therefore of a substantially lower quality than the originals. That means that nonhackers cannot readily duplicate DVD-Video content, the spokesman said.
However, anonymous sources have posted on various Web sites the circuitry diagram and the model name of a converter designed to turn analog RGB signals into NTSC video signals. This converter is also capable of inadvertently removing Macrovision code.
Micomsoft (Osaka, Japan) is one company that makes such a converter a product that has been sold for $100 on the Japanese market for several years. According to Micomsoft, the device was never intended to break Macrovision copy protection. Instead, it was designed to enable fans to play arcade videogames on a home TV. Used as an attachment, it can convert analog RGB output from an arcade game board into video signals that feed into a TV set, a Micomsoft spokesman said.
A method for recording DVD video off Playstation 2, reported on Web pages, suggests using a special cable that has Sony's proprietary 12-pin RGB connector on one end and a 21-pin multiconnector on the other. The cable is used to place a converter (such as the Micomsoft unit) between Playstation 2 and a VCR.
The 21-pin multiconnector is one of the connector specifications defined by the Electronic Industries Association of Japan. The cable was once sold by Sony Computer Entertainment to connect the first-generation Playstation to a TV set equipped with a 21-pin input terminal, but Sony said the cable is no longer available on the market.
Sony Computer Entertainment says that it is investigating attempts to record video using such a cable-and-converter setup. The company, however, has no plans to bring charges against Micomsoft, since the converter's original design had nothing to do with illegal copying. Micomsoft downplayed the incident, noting that the demand for its converters is small, and shrinking.
Engineering executives at leading DVD hardware manufacturers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, expressed frustration with the situation. They claimed that the DVD Copy Control Association Inc. (DVD CCA), a licensing agency based in Morgan Hill, Calif., has prohibited outfitting any DVD player with an analog RGB output. The only exception is a Scart connector, a 21-pin connector used in Europe that includes RGB output pins and comes with its own copy protection measure.
A spokesman for the association said, "DVD CCA is aware of the reports about this situation and we are looking into it."
Meanwhile, Sony Computer Entertainment has not given up its plan to deliver better picture quality for displaying DVD images through an RGB output. The company has proposed to the DVD Forum a new cable specification featuring Sony's proprietary 12-pin connector at both ends of the cable. This cable directly conveys analog RGB signal from the Playstation 2 console to a TV set. Sony is currently the only company selling TVs with a 12-pin input.
Slow to complain
So far, it is still unclear how the movie industry will respond to the Playstation 2 issue. Studio executives acknowledged this week that protecting against illegal analog-to-analog copying via analog RGB output has been a contentious dilemma for studios and the computer industry. But most studios were hesitant to complain about Playstation 2.
When the DVD standard was first developed several years ago, the consumer electronics, movie and PC industries all agreed to allow an analog RGB output for PCs, but none for standalone DVD players. According to sources working closely with the DVD Forum's Copy Protection Technical Working Group, the three industries reached that compromise because SVGA was the only legacy link available to connect a PC subsystem with an analog PC monitor. If studios ever wanted to let consumers watch DVD movies on a computer, this was the only pathway.
Meanwhile, consumer electronics manufacturers agreed to use composite, component or S-video all protected by using Macrovision technology instead of an analog RGB output.
Some observers said the fact that different industries got different treatment from Hollywood could wind up backfiring. Sony Computer Entertainment, in theory, could argue that Playstation 2 is not a standalone DVD player, but a computer, these experts said. The console doesn't have a DVD decoder chip, but decodes DVD in software. Therefore, it could be argued that Playstation 2 should be permitted an analog RGB output, like any PC on the market, according to this camp.
One Hollywood studio executive, commenting anonymously, said he is not overly concerned with the Playstation 2 incident. In his opinion, the picture quality of analog-to-analog copying via analog RGB is too weak to pose a real threat to filmmakers. Others in the movie industry, however, said Sony may have to solve the problem before it introduces the new game console in the United States, where DVD-Video penetration is far more advanced than in Japan.
Conduit to copying
Also, Hollywood is giving PCs another look as they become capable of receiving HDTV broadcasting. An unprotected analog RGB interface between a computer and a monitor can allow copyrighted material particularly high-definition signals to traverse "in the clear," with no copy protection. In theory, said one studio executive, such an interface could become a conduit for mass copying. Anyone could "attach a video-recording storage device," capture and copy the content, he said.
A copy-protected digital interface connecting a digital display and a PC's graphics subsystems is in the offing as part of the Digital Visual Interface. The link that concerns Hollywood at the moment is the analog one.
One studio executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that new ideas on copy protection for that analog interface are under discussion among PC, consumer electronics and movie makers. Companies such as Hitachi, Intel, Matsushita Sony and Toshiba all with a big stake in the issue have been working to find a solution, the executive said. He indicated that an answer might emerge in the next few weeks.
A spokesman at Sony Picture Entertainment (Tokyo) said, "Although we have not received any technical information about this [Playstation 2] issue yet, if the content is actually being copied from Playstation 2, we need to discuss [matters] with Sony Computer Entertainment to take effective measures."
Additional reporting by Junko Yoshida and Margaret Quan