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CES: Sony Pictures embraces DivX

Divx_logoSan Diego-based DivX announced this morning that Sony Pictures has agreed to let online video stores and services distribute its movies with DivX's DRM, an alternative to the electronic locks developed by Microsoft, Apple and Intertrust, a company partly owned by (wait for it ... ) Sony.

It's the first major studio landed by DivX, which has been wooing Hollywood for years with little to show for it. But time and recent history may be on DivX's side here. Like the MP3 format for music, which the major record labels shunned for a decade before accepting, DivX's compressed video format has gained wide support among consumer-electronics companies and (ahem) unauthorized sources of movies. The difference -- and this works in Hollywood's favor -- is that DivX's format can be copy-protected with DRM, while MP3 cannot.

The DivX DRM is proprietary and not interoperable with other DRM systems, but, like Microsoft (and unlike Apple), DivX licenses it widely to software and hardware companies. As a result, the world is awash in PCs and devices that speak DivX. According to the company, more than 100 million consumer-electronics devices that support DivX, many of them living-room and portable DVD players, have been sold.

DivX's approach offers the easiest and least expensive way for people to move the downloaded movies they rent or buy off their computers and onto their TV screens (short of connecting a computer directly to a TV in the living room, which is a bit too geeky for most people at this point). Once equipped with the free DivX software for the PC and an inexpensive DivX-certified DVD player, a consumer can burn a downloaded movie onto a conventional blank DVD and watch it on TV.

The only extra hoop to jump through is a one-time registration process for each DVD player in the home. Compared with Hollywood's preferred approach to DVD burning, which requires consumers to buy new DVD recorders and does not work with rentals, DivX's method is breathtakingly simple.

So what's not for a studio to love? Proprietary formats, for one thing. And even at 100 million and growing, the penetration of DivX-certified devices pales in comparison with the billions of disc players that support only CSS, Hollywood's preferred DRM for DVDs. But for Sony Pictures, DivX-certified gear has made its way into enough homes now to be worth supporting. It may not be the solution, but at least now it's one of them.

As a footnote, it's intriguing that Sony Pictures would be the first to support DivX's proprietary DRM, given how hard some executives at the studio are trying to rally support around a new, interoperable rights-management system based in part on Intertrust's intellectual property. Sony is, after all, a company that has long preferred its own prioprietary formats even to industry standards or popular formats developed by competitors -- witness how long it took Sony Electronics to support MP3 and Windows Media in its music players.

-- Jon Healey

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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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