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CPR redefined

Remember the NBC series “Sanford and Son,” which enjoyed a highly successful run in the mid '70s? Actor and comedian Redd Foxx played the role of Fred G. Sanford, a cantankerous widower living with his grown son, Lamont, in the notorious Watts section of Los Angeles. The trademark routine of the series occurred when Fred feigned a heart attack by clasping his chest in mock pain. Whenever things didn't go his way, he would start staggering and calling out to his late wife, “This is the big one! I'm coming to join you, Elizabeth!”

It seems like the highly successful U.S. content industry, which still calls the Los Angeles area its home, has taken its strategy for the continued global dominance of mass media straight out of a script from “Sanford and Son.” Each time emerging technologies threaten its dominance of the markets for the creation and distribution of entertainment for the masses, the group runs to Washington feigning the need for CPR.

In “The 3-minute guide to the broadcast flag,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EEF) notes that the entertainment companies don't like tools that give you more control. Article author Cory Doctorow writes, “The movie studios boycotted TV because they thought it would clean out the movie theaters. Then they complained that the remote control would make it too easy to skip commercials. Then they freaked out over the VCR, saying it was the ‘Boston Strangler’ of the American film industry.” The entertainment conglomerates were also not fond of audio- and video-capture cards and sued a personal video recorder company into bankruptcy. And the list goes on and on.

For a recent example, Sony BMG started selling music CDs with digital rights management (DRM) software developed by First4Internet XCP and SunnComm MediaMax. Problems with the Sony BMG CDs surfaced when security researchers discovered that XCP and MediaMax installed undisclosed and, in some cases, hidden files on users' Windows computers, potentially exposing music fans to malicious attacks by third parties. The infected CDs also communicated back to Sony BMG about customers' computer use without proper notification.

Named the Sony BMG Rootkit Fiasco, the DRM CDs gave the media conglomerates yet another black eye. The EFF successfully sued Sony BMG, forcing the company to withdraw the technology from the market and to compensate affected consumers with DRM-free versions of the CDs or legal download alternatives.

As this column is about to relate, this has not slowed the efforts of virtually every industry that touches mass media content to portray the transition to networked digital media distribution as life threatening. Now, HDTV is the latest cause for trauma.

Once again, the media conglomerates are warning the politicians that their constituents cannot be trusted — that we are little better than common thieves. While they feign a Sanford-like heart attack and beg politicians for CPR, the reality is that in this case, CPR would be more accurately defined as the Content Protection Racket.

Acronym soup

Welcome to the new digital wonderland, as envisioned in the script from Hollywood. A world filled with seemingly innocuous acronyms: AACS with ICT and DOT, DTCP, HDMI, DVI with HDCP, CGMS-A with RAM, and DCAS to mention a few.

At least broadcasters are less veiled with their DRM demands; they're waving broadcast flags, now available in two flavors: audio and video. Let's explore the new acronym soup of DRM.

If you have already purchased one of those new HDTV-capable receivers or monitors, you may have learned recently that it may not deliver the full HDTV viewing experience from many potential sources, unless it has a High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) connector. HDMI is an outgrowth of Digital Visual Interface (DVI) with High-Definition Content Protection (HDCP). It will be the interconnect of choice for the next-generation Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats and will also be used with HD cable and DBS boxes.

If your set has analog component inputs, you may not get the full benefit of these new HD-DVD formats because of a feature within the Advanced Access Content System (AACS), which will be common to both competing next-generation DVD formats. That feature is the Image Constraint Token (ICT), which, when invoked by a studio, requires that the resolution of the analog component outputs be constrained to 960 × 540 pixels (progressive). Starting in 2011, these analog outputs must be constrained to interlaced SD outputs only. Then at the end of 2013, analog outputs must be eliminated altogether.

And then there's the Digital Only Token (DOT), which turns off the analog outputs in any player. According to the interim AACS Adopters Agreement, this token is not to be used until the terms for its use are resolved in the final AACS agreement.

Did you catch the recent announcement from Sony that the PlayStation 3 with its integrated Blu-ray DVD drive is being delayed six months? One of the reasons behind this setback is the delay in reaching the terms for the final AACS agreement. To learn more about AACS or to download a copy of the Interim Agreement, visit the AACS Licensing Administrator Web site. (See “Web links” on page 18.)

And AACS uses revocable security keys, which allow players to be disabled if it is suspected that they have been compromised. Playing a new DVD that carries the blacklisted codes can revoke keys, or, if there is a networked connection to the player, it can be turned off via a remote network command.

The Blu-ray group is considering additional security layers that would require a back channel connection to the player. And then there is the reality that many of the interactive features of both new HD formats will require a connection to the Internet. We will explore this aspect of the war between the next-generation DVD formats next month when we look at the current state of interactive TV.

Another veiled threat?

Good thing it's an election year, as Congress is considering several pieces of legislation that would give the Content Protection Racketeers even more power, adding new layers of DRM to virtually every product that can touch the bits that deliver mass media entertainment. In an election year, it will be difficult to push this legislation through; however, there's always next year.

While the courts have derailed the broadcast flag for digital television broadcasts, it is far from dead. Bills in Congress would give the FCC authority to require downstream devices to honor the flag in DTV broadcasts, as well as adding an audio flag to digital radio broadcasts. It seems the music conglomerates are concerned that we might record music off the air — a fair use right we have enjoyed for decades — and stop buying CDs or legally downloading the bits.

Another bill is attempting to close the analog hole by requiring the use of Copy Generation Management System Analogue (CGMS-A) with a Rights Assertion Mark (RAM) developed by VEIL Technologies. The cable DBS and broadcast industry already use CGMS-A to protect analog broadcasts. The bits asserting the level of rights that you have are contained on line 21 of the vertical interval along with the closed-captioning bits. It is easy to defeat CGMS-A with a little signal processing. The RAM is a watermark contained in the video that downstream devices would be required to look for in addition to supporting CGMS-A. (See “Web links.”)

Downloadable security

And then there's the cable industry, which has been dragging its feet for more than a decade with respect to Congressional and FCC mandates to open up their set-top-box monopoly. Today, you can buy third-party products that support one-way cable security via the use of a smart card. The consumer electronics and computer industries have been demanding a solution that does not require the expensive smart cards, which are not used in the boxes that the cable industry deploys. They want the ability to download the security capabilities into a device that will support full two-way cable services, including video on demand (VOD).

The FCC is currently conducting a proceeding on downloadable security. The solution proposed by the cable industry is a proprietary microprocessor, which it would license and control. This processor would be in addition to the general-purpose CPUs in personal computers and consumer electronics devices.

As stated early in this column, the list goes on and on and on. There is no way to buy digital media products today with the confidence that they will work properly in a few years. Meanwhile, the marketplace is filled with proprietary DRM solutions that already limit the rights associated with our use of content. Microsoft's Windows Media products include proprietary DRM tools that are limiting the ability to copy video files downloaded via the Internet or distributed via CD and DVD. Apple's iTunes/iPod success story is built atop proprietary DRM services that limit the ways in which you can use the music purchased from the iTunes music (and video) store.

In most cases, these DRM solutions are designed to keep you locked into the hardware and software from one vendor or a small group of vendors. If this sounds all too familiar, it should come as no surprise. The goal of the Content Protection Racket gang members is to keep you locked into their world, to limit your rights associated with content you have paid for, and to protect themselves from competition.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and he hosts and moderates the OpenDTV forum.

Web links

“The 3-minute guide to the broadcast flag”

Digital rights management and copy protection schemes

Advanced Access Content System (AACS) Licensing Administrator

Overview of Copy Generation Management System Analogue (CGMS-A)

Overview of VEIL Rights Assertion Mark

H.R. 4569 analog hole legislation

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