Viewpoint: How Much, How Fast, How Legal?

One of the hot, media-centric topics these days is Digital Rights Management, or DRM. I touched on this topic in a report on the recent Digital Hollywood conference. Put simply but politely, it involves managing how and what an individual may do with program material to which others own the copyright. Put more bluntly, it involves how to keep the public from making copies that Hollywood considers illegitimate and thus deny Hollywood the income it feels would otherwise come from the sale of that material.

This a thorny issue, made worse by the Internet, which makes it possible to transfer digital files around the world at ever-increasing speeds. Music file sharing has exploded almost out of control, and the film and television industries are determined to counteract such chaos (as they see it) before it irreversibly affects their market. So far, transferring the large video files required for a feature film over the Internet takes an impractically long time if you want reasonable quality. But if past developments are any indication, technology will soon clear that bottleneck.

High-definition video may well save the studios from the revenue meltdown they fear. While faster processing speeds, better data compression, and larger storage devices will ultimately make the online transfer of high-definition video possible in practical time frames, I suspect that the market for HD over the Internet will remain small. The point at which the quality of such video downloads will satisfy the mass market will fall well short of what videophiles consider high definition. Once it reaches a satisfactory technical plateau—a plateau that may not even equal the quality of today's standard definition DVDs—it could well stay there until someone finds a way to sell higher video quality to the mass market.

The history of music downloads is telling. Most users seem happy with low-resolution MP3 files; I would not be surprised if 90% of such files are heard over plastic computer speakers or cheap earbud headphones. The people who are happy with such audio reproduction will also eagerly watch video files on their computer screens. Do you hear any buzz about upgrading the technical quality of music downloads over the Internet? I sure don't—apart from the tiny audiophile minority willing to even consider downloaded digital audio in any form as a serious listening format. All the talk about music downloads involves how much, how fast, and how legal. How good is rarely discussed. It's digital, right? It must be good.

The same scenario will likely play out with video downloading. That's why I part company with those who believe we'll get our high-definition fix from the Internet. They see packaged high-definition media like Blu-ray and HD DVD as doomed by the download revolution before they even launch, much like DVD-Audio and SACD.

To date, high-definition programming serves a small but growing (and vocal) market. That market will embrace a high-definition packaged format, but it won't accept the reduced quality or interminable download times that will likely plague the early days of any "high-definition" Internet service. It's also likely that those who provide HD content via downloads will find ways to meet the technical specs required of high definition while degrading the true quality. They'll do this to reduce costs by increasing speed and capacity—a lesson to be learned from what cable and satellite companies have done with conventional television broadcasts. But once the mass market becomes accustomed to the sort of high definition that is available today via broadcast, and which will become available soon in one (we hope) or more packaged formats, there will be a market for HD over the Internet.

That day could be several years off, but content providers are looking ahead. The actions they take in the meantime—or are forced into by law—will affect all of us. Will the public be allowed to continue recording HD programming on hard-disk digital video recorders, the most common HD recording mechanisms on the market? And how will this affect other sorts of HD video recording, like D-VHS, Blu-ray, and HD DVD? D-VHS is available now. Blu-ray and HD DVD will be available as recorders in the future. Will so-called "broadcast flags" make such recording a chaotic, hit-or-miss proposition? Will ABC decide that we can record Lost in HD but not Desperate Housewives, while CBS nixes CSI, Wherever and NBC dumps on digital Leno? And it won't be the networks alone that make such decisions. Content ownership is a complicated tangle of contracts. Lawyers will be delighted, but such a Byzantine scenario is guaranteed to infuriate the public, which, thanks to decades of VCR experience, now considers time-shifting part of the "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" clause. But with TV on DVD now a major growth market, aren't content owners likely to view even the recording of ordinary series broadcasts as impinging on possible future revenues?

Thus the concern over DRM. Even that name isn't exactly appropriate, since no one seems to agree on whether or not consumers have any rights at all to digital material copyrighted by others, apart from viewing it or listening to it themselves. Accepted fair-use rights allow you to do anything you want with such material as long as it's for your own, non-commercial, non-profit, personal use, but the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has also made it illegal to circumvent any copy protection built into the material. Hollywood appears to see any form of copying as the first step toward digital Armageddon, even when such copying is purely for the owner's convenience. They've sued one company, Kaleidescape, over a media server in which DVDs are copied onto a hard drive for easy access. Ironically, many of the customers for this device are among the Hollywood elite.

How all this will ultimately play out is anyone's guess, but it promises future surprises—and confusion—for everyone.