DVD Copy Protection Hot Topic at FireWire Confab

July 1, 1998---"These presentations always attract more Hollywood lawyers than engineers." That's how Dick Davies of the 1394 Trade Association summed up Brendan Trawl's update on DVD Copy Protection issues at the second annual FireWire Developers' Conference last week in San Jose, CA.

Speaking to a packed house in the Fairmont Hotel's Imperial Ballroom, Trawl, an Intel engineer, gave an in-depth technical overview of DVD copy protection. The entertainment industry's concern about easy copyright infringement has been the major obstacle to the rollout of the new ultra-wide-bandwidth all-systems-compatible IEEE standard.

FireWire is capable of a transmission rate of 80-120 Mbps, sufficient to simultaneously carry data communications, control signals, high-definition video, and multichannel high-resolution audio. The industry's fear is that, without some protection in place, piracy of movies and music will become a widespread practice. "Recently completed protection schemes have finally met Hollywood's rigorous specifications," Trawl said. The goal is to allow consumers the use of content---as in pay-per-view---while denying them the possession of that content, unless appropriate fees have been paid. It's the difference between renting a movie and buying one.

"Robust" was a recurring term in Trawl's discussion of DVD copy protection, as in "Robust redundant key exchange protocols have been implemented to ensure the highest degree of content security." A mouthful like this is sweet music to Hollywood types. In plain English, it could mean that for you to play a DVD, the content provider---a film studio, for example---must have your credit-card number and your approval to bill to it, plus digital ID numbers of the various pieces in your system in case you attempt to copy a rented disc. In theory, pirated DVDs could be traced back to the original duplicating machine. Shades of Divx: your viewing may be monitored. Copy that DVD, go to jail.

Disc replication isn't the only type of piracy the 1394 copy-protection scheme addresses. Unauthorized hardware is also addressed in the design, which can lock out pirated or unlicensed devices in the network. Consumers attempting to run unlicensed hardware will shortly find their black-market gear inoperative. "System renewability messages are sent to each device. Pirated devices with unauthorized IDs will be rendered inoperative," Trawl explained. The system can distinguish between authentic and pirated gear. Should a line of products be discovered to be illegal, the shutdown could apply to entire classes of equipment as well as to individual machines. Who exactly will be acting as system guardian wasn't explained.

"Full authentication" will be required of individual devices in a FireWire system, meaning the manufacturers have paid all license fees. "Fees will range from a few thousand dollars to several tens of thousands for each manufacturer, depending on the production volume," Trawl stated. "It amounts to a few cents per device." Potential makers of knock-off 1394-enabled DVD players or recorders have been warned.

Some attendees were curious about how the TV networks would deal with the copyright issue. "Films will likely be protection-encoded," Trawl said, "but we understand that a great deal of off-air material will be copy-free." He specifically mentioned NFL football games as being free of content ciphers.

It should be noted that the entertainment industry has a long history of blindly opposing every new development in technology for consumers, as Onehouse CEO Jim Griffin is fond of pointing out. Movie studios and theater owners opposed the development of television. The music industry vigorously resisted tape recorders, even though prerecorded cassettes proved to be far more profitable than LPs. (Remember the "tape tax"?) Disney, with the support of other studios, fought against the VCR all the way to the Supreme Court and lost, while the machine sold by the millions. Even when the proliferation of home recording devices became inevitable, the entertainment industry saw only a threat rather than an opportunity. No one in the studios foresaw the profits to be made in the video rental business, which now enables even the worst loser film to break even.

The tradition continues into the digital age. Many DVD films are saddled with a weakened sync pulse strong enough for your TV to lock on to, but not for your VCR to make a clean recording. If all Brendan Trawl described comes to pass, compiling an inexpensive film library will be difficult at best for all but the most technically sophisticated. A wiser move by the industry might be to make access to content cheaper and billing for it easier. "I don't think the entertainment industry has ever understood its own revenue streams," observed one Hewlett-Packard engineer after the conference.

The discussion drew one of the largest crowds at the three-day event. No one acknowledged publicly what everyone admits privately: that encryption schemes, no matter how "robust and redundant," can and will be defeated. Their very existence is motivation enough for the armies of hackers who see each new escalation as a personal challenge.

"I've done quite a bit of work in encryption," said the H-P engineer. "All the algorithms are widely known. It's too bad this has delayed the launch of FireWire and allowed incompatible USB [Universal Serial Bus] schemes to emerge. They will only have to be re-engineered when FireWire finally gets rolling. Personally, I don't see what everyone is so scared of." Technological warfare, it seems, is the Hollywood lawyer's self-fulfilling prophecy.