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Slow Burn

Movielink_logo Hollywood has moved with surprising speed to embrace some aspects of the Internet and digital distribution. For example, witness how quickly Apple’s iTunes Music Store went from five shows last fall to more than 150. But when it comes to downloadable flicks, the studios have moved at a glacial pace. What’s particularly galling is the refusal to let people buy permanent copies of movies that can be burned onto discs that can work in a conventional DVD player.

The announcement today by Movielink and Sonic Solutions shone a spotlight on that issue. For about a year and a half, Sonic has been demonstrating its ability to burn DVDs with the same copy-protection technology as packaged DVDs use – a type of encryption called Content Scramble System, or CSS. But the group of studios, tech companies and consumer-electronics manufacturers that control the rights to CSS has yet to permit it to be used on homemade DVDs. The group hasn’t disclosed why, exactly, although participants talk vaguely about a clash over the studios’ desire for additional protections against piracy in exchange for granting consumers more flexibility. More recently, Sonic has developed DVD-burning software that supports a variety of anti-copying technologies, from CSS to a variation on the cloaking technique used in copy-protected CDs. Movielink announced today that it will incorporate this Sonic software into its store. That's as far as it can go, though, because it doesn't have the studios' permission yet to use Sonic's solution on any of the films it sells. In the meantime, it will continue to sell movies that cannot be played in a DVD player.

What’s remarkable here is the pointlessness of the studios’ efforts. In essence, they’re trying to stop bootlegging by people who buy movies. That might stop people from burning copies for their friends (or not – programs to circumvent CSS illegally are widely available online), but it won’t make a dent in online piracy. That’s because bootlegged versions of a DVD start popping up weeks, if not months, before the film becomes available for downloading. In other words, the horse will be out of the barn, over the hill and across the river by the time Hollywood brings the lock.

A much better approach is to do what the EZTakes movie store does. Don’t bother with CSS. Use DRM to deter file-sharing and limit copying, and insert a unique digital watermark that will transfer onto any DVDs burned. That way, if anyone is foolish enough to rip the DVD and share it online, the studio can trace the copies back to the source. Somehow I suspect that the folks who want to buy downloadable movies aren't the ones the studios have to worry about.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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