Final ThoughtBang The DRM Slowly

Normally, newer models of equipment offer more features than previous ones, not less. But Panasonic's TU-DST50 set-top DTV receiver had an IEEE-1394 connection; the TU-DST51 did not. Digital rights management (DRM) caused the loss. The unprotected 1394 (FireWire) connection on the earlier model freely allowed consumers to make digital HDTV recordings.

According to many DTV pundits, despite all of the HDTV programming already being transmitted (including relatively recent movies), DRM is what's holding DTV back. It's the scapegoat du jour. And, according to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, Mark Twain wrote, "The report of my death was an exaggeration."

That's funny in two senses: it's amusing, and it's also somewhat strange. It's strange because other sources have it as "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated" or "The report of my death was a gross exaggeration" or something else along similar lines.

A "gross exaggeration" could mean something preposterous, or it could be taken more specifically as an overstatement of the revenues-before-expenses earned by a Hollywood movie. New technologies often make Hollywood studios fear for their grosses, but usually result in earning them more money.

Widescreen movies were (re-)introduced in the early 1950s to counter television's threat to theatrical gross revenues. Unfortunately, once television became a significant portion of a movie's revenue stream, the mismatch between widescreen movies and squarer TV became a problem, not a solution.

On November 11, 1976, Disney and Universal brought suit against Sony and its ad agency, some retailers, and William Griffiths. The last was an early VCR (and production facility) owner who agreed to be a "nominal defendant," someone who would intentionally commit the heinous sin of taping broadcast television programming onto a Sony Betamax VCR. On January 17, 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled that consumer VCRs were OK, a fortunate decision for all concerned. After all, Disney and Universal (among other studios) now derive much of their motion picture revenues from prerecorded home video.

Today, we're in the digital age or, as some rights owners would have it, the age of serial copying and distribution. The fear is that Hollywood's gross revenues will plummet.

Instead of millions, just one DVD and VHS tape of a movie might be sold. The buyer would make ten perfect digital copies and give them to friends. Each friend would make ten more and so on until, after just ten generations of copying, every person on earth would have a copy of the movie, and the rights owner would receive the revenues accruing to just one disk.

DTV seemingly makes matters even worse. The rights owner won't get even that single disk's worth of revenue if the movie is copied from an off-air broadcast. And, if the resulting illicit copies are HDTV, they could conceivably exceed even theatrical quality. Digital cinema projectors often use just 720 rows of picture elements; home HDTV can have 1080.

That's where Twain's quote returns. Whether he wrote "The report of my death was an exaggeration" or "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated," the gist is pretty much the same. And GIST could stand for gross-income security trouble.

It's unquestionably possible to secure digital signals. Bank data and military secrets may be carefully encrypted prior to transmission. But it's just as unquestionably impossible to secure pictures and sounds after transmission. In the worst case, all a pirate needs to do is aim a camera at a screen and stick a microphone in front of a speaker. That will easily capture the gist of a program.

The resulting quality today will certainly not match a direct digital HDTV transfer. But will it come close enough? How about in ten years? More important, will piracy, whether of a direct digital or shoot-the-screen nature, eat into Hollywood revenues more than DTV, with its multicast and interactivity options, might increase them? More than a quarter century after the introduction of the VHS machine, Hollywood's theatrical box office revenues are at an all-time high.

Economic prognosticators ponder that question, and engineers toy with signal security. Alas, the death of camcorders hasn't even been reported yet.

Mark Schubin is an engineering consultant with a diverse range of clients, from the Metropolitan Opera to Sesame Workshop.