TiVo sits at nexus of DRM conundrum

Recently, I've been hearing a lot about how movie studios (and other providers of video content) are significantly more senstive to the idea that the High Definition versions of their content might get pirated than they are to other lower resolution versions. I'm not sure what the implications of this are.

Recently, I've been hearing a lot about how movie studios (and other providers of video content) are significantly more senstive to the idea that the High Definition versions of their content might get pirated than they are to other lower resolution versions. I'm not sure what the implications of this are. But one logical deduction would be that the movie studios are less sensitive about the low-res versions getting out. Perhaps to the point that they'll give away the low-res versions in hopes those give aways will cause buyers to go out and purchase the high-res versions. Could this be? It sounds like they think that by keeping the HD versions close to the vest, they won't be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Making this distinction seems completely senseless to me.  If I'm a pirate, I'll probably take whatever version of whatever it is I'm pirating I can get. And, regardless of whether I paid for it or not, if I happen to view the low-res version of some movie, I'm not going to pay more for the HD version.  Or maybe I'm the atypical video consumer. When I first started hearing ruminations of this logic, I thought it was nonsense. But, between last week's big Apple announcements and a story in Information Week, I now realize it's not. Last week for example, Apple CEO Steve Jobs talked about improved resolution on the company's video iPods and cited "near DVD quality" but not HD quality. My colleague Dan Farber pointed this out during last week's Dan and David Show (a podcast). 

The Information Week story goes into detail about how the fear of HD content getting pirated (but not the lower resolutions of the same content) is preventing TiVo from making a lot of HD content available to users of its TiVo-To-Go service -- a service that allows you to take content that's been downloaded onto your TiVo's hard drive and transfer it to a portable video playback device like one of the ones from iRiver or Creative.  According to IW's Antone Gonsavles:

TiVo subscribers willing to spend a hefty $800 for its new digital video recorder will find one feature missing, the ability to burn content to a DVD, or move it to a computer or portable media player....TiVo's Series3's biggest feature -- the ability to play high-definition content -- is also its most limiting, in terms of portability. While such content can be played on a monitor or TV, it can't leave the box.... The reason for the inflexibility is the lack of copyright protection technology approved by content providers and cable operators. The viewing quality of high definition content increases its value, and makes it a potential favorite among pirates, so copyright owners are particular sensitive about the distribution of HD programming and movies...."The definition (for distribution) so far has been nothing happens," Andrew Morrison, product manager for Series3 at TiVo, said Wednesday. "You can't get it (to another device)."..... "It may never happen, or it could be years away," Morrison said.

For those not familiar with who CableLabs is, the story goes into pretty good detail about the role that CableLabs plays in the cable TV ecosystem when it comes to content protection. But just supposing that HD content is really as prized (over the low-res versions) by pirates as the entertainment industry thinks it is.  Then, that industry's concerns about HD content getting pirated could be justified given TiVo's current content protection architecture.  TiVo, like Amazon, Yahoo, AOL, Napster-To-Go, and other providers of digital music and/or movies, relies on Microsoft's digital rights management platform to copy protect content that's transferred from a TiVo-box to a portable player.  It's for this reason that the only portable video players that are compatible with the TiVo-To-Go service are the ones that are PlaysForSure-compatible.

PlaysForSure is the brand name for a personal entertainment ecosystem that Microsoft's been working on -- one that establishes compatibility between content merchants (ie: AOL, Yahoo, Amazon, etc.), the copy protection on the content they sell, and the software and devices that can play that content back. Not only is the long term viability of that ecosystem being called into question by virtue of Microsoft's new Zune brand (a brand that is both incompatible with and a competitor to PlaysForSure participants), the ability of the underlying DRM technology to secure the content it's supposedly designed to protect was recently compromised by a utility called FairUse4WM.  Even worse, Microsoft plugged the "hole" and the developers of FairUse4M released a new version that re-opened the hole it within 24 hours (The newest version of Apple's DRM known as FairPlay is apparently no better off).  In other words, if the DRM system that TiVo is relying on is so easily compromised, then the fears of the entertainment execs who some how have it in their heads that HD content is worth more to pirates than the lo-res versions of that same content may be justified.

As a side note, last year, TiVo started playing around with watermarks. Watermarks could be used in combination with (or in lieu of) DRM technologies and are designed to uniquely encode each individual copy of content that a watermarking content provider issues with information that can identify the person who originally purchased the content. Theoretically, watermarks could stop piracy because of the way pirated content can be traced back to the "original pirate."  But watermarks may prove to be ineffective. Last year, Sun's director of Web Technologies Tim Bray -- a person whose software engineering instincts I trust -- told me that watermarks can easily be defeated (which makes sense to me).


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