PARIS The five-year war over copy protection of digital content pitting Hollywood studios against technology companies may be winding down, now that key consumer electronics giants, including Philips Electronics, appear to be uniting behind the smart-card-based SmartRight technology originally developed by Thomson Multimedia.
EE Times has learned that Philips is close to signing an agreement to join the initiative, a move that could tip the balance in SmartRight's favor and bring the drawn-out drama to a close. Such a development would also retire the widely held industry view that SmartRight, originally called XCA and promoted only by Thomson and Zenith, would go nowhere.
In recent months, SmartRight has attracted other backers, including Canal+ Technologies, Gemplus, Micronas, Nagravision, Pioneer, SchlumbergerSema, STMicroelectronics and SCM Microsystems. They and several other companies are ready to demonstrate the SmartRight proposal, which appears to satisfy Hollywood studios' demands that their digital content be protected against theft.
The battle isn't quite over yet, though. A number of issues remain unresolved, foremost among them being agreement on the mechanics of how to actually protect content. The Digital Video Broadcast group (DVB), the industry body striving to develop a framework for technical requirements for copy protection, has missed a self-imposed deadline to work out a plan before the year's end.
Still, as the January Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and its slew of product demonstrations approaches, a flurry of activity in the United States and Europe points toward a cessation of hostilities. Individuals closely involved in the global copy protection debate are expected to attend technology demonstrations at CES, to be held Jan. 9-12 in Las Vegas. Most of these same technologists and lawyers are also scheduled to attend a Copy Protection Technical Working Group meeting in Los Angeles on Jan. 14 and a subsequent meeting of the DVB's Copy Protection Technology group, sponsored by Motion Picture Association of America, the following day.
With support from nearly every level of the digital industry, including Hollywood studios, Internet technology companies, computer and consumer electronics suppliers, and chip vendors, the DVB's ad hoc group on copy protection technology "stands the best chance" of finding a solution that all parties to the debate will accept, said Peter MacAvock, executive director of the DVB Project Office in Geneva.
The DVB's mandate is to define a set of technical scenarios and to outline technical requirements for copy protection mechanisms that will balance consumer rights with those of content providers. While acknowledging delays in its work, MacAvock said that "we expect to get things done by the middle of next year."
According to industry insiders closely following the DVB group's work, the hitch in its progress does not necessarily involve the technical differences in the 24 proposals on the table. "We are not deadlocked on any specific copy protection technologies," said Solene Jaboulet, business development manager for Thomson's research and innovation division. Rather, "wordings and new requirements that keep being added" are "slowing down the process to build consensus," she said.
The group has yet to reach agreement on the definition of an "authorized domain" for legally obtained content to be viewed, copied and distributed for personal use; whether a limit should be imposed on the number of devices used within the authorized domain; and what types of equipment should qualify for inclusion in the authorized domain.
As the DVB group toils on, it appears that many technology companies have revised or improved their proposed copy protection technologies over the past year, caving in to Hollywood's demands.
The SmartRight group's technology presentations at CES will demonstrate how content remains scrambled, as required, throughout the consumer's personal home network until shown on a "rendering device," such as a display. Descrambling occurs only in rendering devices using a renewable security module such as a smart card. The goal is to let consumers access content from any "compliant" device on a private network, while providing end-to-end encryption security. If content is stored in a non-compliant device with no associated rights, such as a PC's hard-disk drive, SmartRight technology would block it from being displayed on a screen, Jaboulet said.
Since a similar demo performed by the group a year ago on a PC platform, the SmartRight software code has been "further optimized so that the demo can run on real-life, off-the-shelf consumer electronics devices whose resources memory and processing power are much more constrained," said Reinhard Steffens, the director of principal research at Micronas GmbH (Munich, Germany).
Moreover, whereas the original proposal did not include digital watermarks, the group is currently working with a watermarking-technology company and is ready to add them, said Olivier Lafaye, general manager of innovation projects at Thomson.
Responding to heated industry debate over the so-called "analog hole" issue, the SmartRight group will incorporate features that not only detect watermarks at an A/D converter, but also generate watermarking at a D/A point. "It's in our road map," Lafaye said. The issue centers on how to plug the hole created when unprotected analog transmissions are intercepted and digitized. Studios, fearing that the intercepted transmissions could be converted to high-quality digital copies, want copy protection for analog content equivalent to that of digital.
The studios made the analog hole a rallying cry when they realized that no "flags" remain once a digital stream tagged with a flag, or a watermark, is descrambled and converted into analog signals for viewing on an analog TV. Hollywood argued that users could convert the signal back to digital, sans flags, and even redistribute the copyrighted content freely over the Internet.
Some content owners went so far as to suggest placing a watermark generator at a D/A converter to indicate there was a flag in the digital stream. In turn, A/D converters would include watermark detection technology.
Although many technology companies, including Microsoft and Intel, deem such an approach myopic, the SmartRight group appears to have responded to the content owners' request. Although the group's CES demo will not include any watermarking ability, "since no consensus is built [around] watermarks," Lafaye said that the group will show a digital set-top box, a digital TV and a front-end box for a legacy analog TV all equipped with a smart-card slot that can run a SmartRight-enabled card.
Other problems remain, though. For example, some insiders say Hollywood studios are demanding that the DVB copy protection group consider a way to add geographic limitations to where content, once legally obtained by a consumer, can be viewed. The plan is similar to an unpopular regional coding scheme used for DVD content scrambling.
The prospect of further constraining video poses a dilemma for SmartRight advocates, who cite content portability and inherent renewability as a major advantage over other forms of copy protection. For example, with SmartRight, a consumer could view a legally purchased movie at a second location using a smart card that contains the decryption key. But studios now want to constrain portability, insisting that the second viewing location be in the same territory where the movie was granted its viewing rights.
"Frankly, some of those additional requirements [demanded by Hollywood] have nothing to do with copy protection, but a lot to do with studios' own business models," Jaboulet said.
Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of media conglomerate News Corp., dismissed concerns like Jaboulet's as being misguided in a speech at Comdex last month. "What we are looking to accomplish is a balance between the viewer's right to take advantage of the unprecedented convenience of digital technology and the content creator's right not to be digitally looted," Chernin said.
Despite technical differences in copy protection approaches, one SmartRight proponent, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he believed the industry would eventually reach a consensus. Agreement on "a baseline, standard" specification will "enable sufficient interoperability between what could be various implementations of such a standard," the source said. "Obviously, by gathering more and more DVB participants' support, SmartRight hopes in the future to be the leading compliant implementation."
Lafaye said the SmartRight group and IBM were the only two that last year submitted proposals meeting all of the DVB group's extensive commercial requirements. "Others offered partial proposals," Lafaye said.
The SmartRight group has already held "extensive technical discussions with Hollywood studios" and is progressing toward "more business-oriented discussions" involving "implementations and financing," he said.