Studios Using Digital Armor
By AMY HARMON
Lying dormant in virtually every digital cable box in America is technology that can prevent viewers from recording certain programs to watch them later. Soon, several Hollywood studios are planning to tell cable operators to flip the switch.
People who have become accustomed to recording pay-per-view and video-on-demand shows will probably still be able to, the studios say â€” so long as they pay an extra fee.
The move is one of a range of new restrictions Hollywood is beginning to impose on digital movies, music and television. After years of battling online piracy in court, media executives are fighting technology with technology, locking up their products with the same types of digital tools that millions of people have used to get the products free over the Internet.
"We need to put in speed bumps to keep people honest," said Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, which is lobbying federal regulators to require many devices to incorporate technology that prevents consumers from sending digital media files over the Internet. "If we don't, our future is bleak."
Hollywood's new strategy is likely to affect everyone from computer-adept users of online music services to the average couch potato. The digital future, hailed as more convenient and of higher quality than the scratchy, fuzzy analog past, is coming with multiple strings attached.
Already, people are finding unfamiliar constraints on how they can consume familiar media: listen to music on your PC, but do not try to copy it to your MP3 player; watch a movie in your home as often as you want for 24 hours â€” because after that it will evaporate into the ether; marvel at your plasma-screen TV, but be prepared for your picture quality to be diminished if you do not have the latest model with anti-piracy equipment.
As consumers evaluate Hollywood's new deal, industry analysts are predicting a tug of war that could determine new ground rules of cultural consumption.
"We're entering a period of three to seven years where entertainment companies keep trying to control and consumers keep trying to escape it," said George F. Colony, the chief executive of Forrester Research, a technology and media research firm. "There's a lot of money at stake here and Hollywood doesn't want to lose it."
For entertainment companies, the ability to use digital technology to lock down their material feels like poetic justice. The music industry attributes a precipitous drop in sales over the last two years to online file-trading by people who have become accustomed to getting their music free through computer programs like Napster and KaZaA, and movie studios fear the same fate is about to befall them as more people get high-speed Internet connections at home.
The aggressive countermeasures and the consumer ire they may inspire may sound risky for an industry that makes money by making people feel good. But entertainment executives say they are the only realistic response to millions of people who would never steal a CD or DVD from a store but show no compunction about doing so online.
Even if the security setups do not work perfectly â€” many previous efforts to secure digital media have already been overcome by hackers â€” the industry says they will serve as a deterrent, much the way video cameras deter shoplifting.
Hollywood continues to wage legal battles against technologies it views as aiding the infringement of its copyrights: 321 Studios, a maker of DVD copying software; ReplayTV, a device that allows consumers to record shows and skip commercials; and several widely used file-trading programs are all the subjects of lawsuits by major media companies.
But lately Hollywood has decided to take advantage of advances in copyright-protection tools developed by companies like Microsoft, Macrovision and RealNetworks known as digital rights management software. The technology, media executives say, will benefit consumers because it allows entertainment to be delivered digitally and packaged in dozens of new ways. Instead of a product, consumers will essentially purchase licenses to use digital movies or music under certain circumstances.
Depending on the rules dictated by the software, your ability to listen to a music track or watch a movie can expire after a day or remain in place forever. You can copy it once, twice, as many times as you want, or not at all. You can play it on all portable devices, no portable devices or a subset of portable devices. And you can be charged a different amount for each set of privileges.
"You're not buying music, you're buying a key," says Larry Kenswil, the president of the eLabs division of the Universal Music Group, the world's largest record company, which recently started charging 99 cents for a digital single that can be burned to a CD but not copied to certain portable devices, like the Apple iPod. "That's what digital rights management does: it enables business models."
The new software weapons, entertainment executives say, are already reinforcing a variety of new services, from movies on demand to online jukeboxes, that they say they would have been reluctant to offer before. Tempted by promises of a brave new digital world, eager consumers are testing out high-definition TV's and scooping up DVD's.
But in what may prove to be an old-fashioned analog awakening, consumers are beginning to suspect that the new tools take away more freedoms than they give.
Brian Wozny, 52, so liked the idea of watching a Steve McQueen movie without going to a video store that he recently paid $1.99 to download "The Hunter" over Movielink, an online service introduced by several movie studios in November. Then he learned that he could not transfer the film to another computer and that it would disappear from his hard drive 24 hours after he started watching it.
"I don't mind them putting some limits on it, but it's one rule after another rule after another and it's hard to keep track," said Mr. Wozny, of Cleveland. "Being able to watch it for 30 days would be a lot better."
Gary Merson, who reviews equipment for consumer electronics magazines, found last week that his state-of-the-art high-definition television system would not display several channels, including HBO and WCBS. Instead a message flashed on the $8,000 screen: "Notice â€” Copy restrictions prevent the viewing of this program in the high definition format. For more information see the owner's manual for your satellite receiver."
DirecTV, Mr. Merson's satellite provider, said no one was available to comment on the company's policy on copy restrictions last week. But Mr. Merson said he was told by a customer service representative that the message was intended for television studios that want to activate anti-piracy measures.
If DirecTV detects that a customer's equipment would allow certain shows to be transmitted over the Internet, the viewer is informed that the material can be seen only in standard format. In Mr. Merson's case, the message appears to have been a technical glitch, which did not make him any happier.
"These copy-protection schemes are a bill of goods," said Mr. Merson, who wrote about the experience in his Internet newsletter, The HDTV Insider. "The program providers get the higher profits and we get stuff that doesn't work right."
For now, consumers who do not like the new models can just stick with the old media. But soon they may not have a choice.
This year, several of the major music companies have said they plan to begin embedding copy-protection technologies on a sizable percentage of their CD's. DVD's are already protected by a digital wrapper that prevents them from being copied. And a federal statute â€” passed after heavy lobbying by the entertainment industry â€” makes it illegal to break such digital safeguards, even to make a personal copy, something consumers have taken for granted in the past.
Hollywood's next move is an attempt to impose new electronic rules about recording and copying on digital broadcast television.
Since the government eventually plans to reclaim the airways reserved for analog broadcasts, every household with a TV would be affected.
To prevent trading of near-perfect copies of shows over the Internet, the entertainment industry wants to insert a digital tag in every program with instructions about whether it can be recorded and how many copies viewers can make.
The Federal Communications Commission is under pressure to adopt such regulations as a way to spur the transition to digital television. The movie studios have said they will withhold the most sought-after programming from digital broadcasts until they know it can be adequately protected, either by an F.C.C. ruling or a legislative mandate from Congress.
"We have zero objection to anyone's ability to duplicate, to record, to play back and to save any copy- able content whatsoever," said Peter Chernin, the president of 20th Century Fox. "But we'd be idiots not to be wary of the risks that come with that ability, and of the vulnerability of those of us supplying digitally unprotected films and shows."
The entertainment industry's lobbying efforts have ignited protests by consumer groups and some technology companies, which would need to modify their machines to make the arrangements work. They complain that many of the presumed benefits of the new digital world would be lost under such a system.
Someone who records a favorite show onto a hard drive in the living room would not be able to retrieve and watch it over a wireless network from another room, for instance, or from a country home. And since current DVD players would not recognize the new electronic flags, they would not be able to play back programs recorded under such a system.
Besides, critics note, a handful of people are sure to find a way around the security system, as happened with DVD's. While most consumers never copy DVD's, thousands of films are freely available on the Internet because a small number of people do.
"This isn't going to stop serious hackers," said Mark Cooper, the research director for the Consumer Federation of America. "All you end up with here is an inconvenience to the average consumer."
Besides inconvenience, some critics argue that digitally enforced restrictions on copying threaten an aspect of free speech rights that copyright law has traditionally respected. This "fair use" right to use snippets of copyrighted works for the purpose of parody or criticism or scholarship, they say, is essentially impossible to exercise if the material is protected with digital locks and federal law makes it illegal to unlock them.
Hollywood executives say they know they may need to adjust to meet consumer demands. James B. Ramo, the chief executive of Movielink, the Internet movie service, said the security software's flexibility was one of its chief virtues.
"We're not locked into these rules," Mr. Ramo said. "We're just testing them out."