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Hackers v Hollywood, Round 2

Windvd_logo Software maker Corel fired a kill shot recently (on Good Friday, no less) into WinDVD, one of the programs that hackers used to circumvent the electronic locks on high-definition movie discs. Made by Corel subsidiary InterVideo, WinDVD enables people to play high-definition discs -- in either the HD DVD or Blu-ray format -- on computers equipped with HD DVD or Blu-ray drives. But it also enabled a handful of highly motivated individuals to find the hidden keys to the locks that prevented HD DVD and Blu-ray discs from being copied onto a computer hard drive, burned onto blank discs or shared online. More than 100 HD DVD movies have been unlocked, along with well over 50 Blu-ray discs. (The Blu-ray format enables a second layer of anti-copying technology, dubbed BD+, but none of the initial discs appear to have been equipped with it.)

On Friday, Corel informed WinDVD users that they had to download a "security update" in order to continue playing high-definition discs. They'll have about three months to do so; after that, all newly minted high-def discs will include a set of instructions that permanently disables the older, hacked version of the software. Users who put one of these new discs into their PC will not be unable to play that disc, but they'll render the software incapable of playing any other high-def Hollywood movie -- even the older ones in their personal collections. Ouch!

The "security update" won't provide WinDVD users with any greater protection against viruses, spyware or anything else one usually associates with computer "security." Instead, it closes some of the software avenues that hackers used to defeat the locks on high-def discs. The goal is to make hackers and crackers start from scratch, rather than repeating the techniques they used to expose all those HD DVD and Blu-ray keys. In that sense, it marks the beginning of Round Two in the battle over Hollywood's effort to keep high-def home videos from fueling free downloads. The next step is likely to be a similar update for CyberLink's PowerDVD, which hackers claim to have cracked, too. That update should also defeat the high-def capabilities of Slysoft's AnyDVD disc-copying program, which is based on a critical (and soon-to-be-revoked) key taken from PowerDVD.

The success of the studios' cat-and-mouse efforts will depend not just on how long they can forestall the next hack. Other factors include how many innocent users fail to install the update in time, and whether the public views the effort as a legitimate response to piracy or an illegitimate attack on fair-use copying. The process of revoking software is a blunt instrument; everyone using WinDVD and PowerDVD will be affected, regardless of whether they traded bootlegged high-def movies, made back-up copies for personal use or merely played the high-def movies they bought or rented on their PCs. (The same is true for AnyDVD, but let's face it, the program is billed as a way to circumvent the locks on movies and protected CDs.) If Corel and CyberLink succeed in converting their users before the revocations begin, the battle between studios and hackers will be little more than background noise to consumers. If not, legitimate users who are caught in the crossfire will join those who already question Hollywood's motives, and the battle could move to a larger, more political stage.

The image above is the logo for InterVideo's WinDVD 8.

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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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