Sony Erects New Electonic Barrier to Digital Pirates

Entertainment-industry executives should sleep better thanks to a recent announcement from Sony Corporation. On November 30, Sony announced it has developed robust, multilevel copy protection for the emerging IEEE 1394 interconnect standard, which represents an escalation in the technological war against poachers of intellectual property.

High-speed, fully digital transmission of movies and music offers unprecedented opportunity for piracy, as exemplified by the ongoing controversy over MP3, the music-download and shareware system that is all the rage among high-school and college students. Many in the industry believe that a video equivalent of MP3 could siphon off significant revenue from Hollywood studios. Concerns about this possibility have slowed digital-distribution developments in the entertainment business.

i.LINK is Sony's nomenclature for IEEE 1394, also known as FireWire, the universal wide-bandwidth interface capable of two-way data rates as high as 200 Mbps. The interface will eventually be found on most consumer electronics and personal computers, and it's already available on recent editions of some products.

FireWire originated at Apple Computer Corporation, and has won wide acceptance in the electronics industry after several years of refinement. In a press announcement on November 2, the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA) and the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) jointly endorsed the interface, which they see as promoting compatibility between digital television displays and set-top converter boxes.

Sony has developed a suite of 1394-compatible content-protection products, code-named 5C, that seem to meet Hollywood's very strict requirements. Based on technical proposals presented to the Copyright Protection Technical Working Group (Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba, Sony, and Matsushita) in February 1998, the Digital Transmission Content Protection Method (DTCP) classifies all audio-video and multimedia content into three categories: copy prohibited, copy one generation, and copy free. "Copy free" content can be replicated ad infinitum by any users; "copy one" content allows a single generation of copies to be made from the original, but no copies from the copy. "Copy prohibited" prevents any attempt at copying.

The software code for all three systems will be executed by a Sony microprocessor known as the Cryptographic Signal Processor. The chip reportedly "reduces the load on a product's microprocessor by internally encrypting and decrypting AV content, such as MPEG datastreams," and "allows for simultaneous transfer of two separate isochronous signals over a single connection." For example, an electronic programming guide can be received while the device is actively encrypting/decrypting a broadcast movie. Pay-per-copy schemes for otherwise copy-prohibited material will no doubt emerge as significant revenue streams for film studios and electronic distributors.