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Copy-protecting video streams

Television networks have garnered a lot of attention in the past year for making their programs available for free online, be it through their own sites (e.g., cbs.com and comedycentral.com), joint efforts (hulu.com) or social networks (MySpaceTV). Many of these efforts rely on Adobe's well-nigh ubiquitous Flash format, which works on Macs as well as PCs. One consequence of using Flash is that the streams aren't encrypted, which means they can be recorded and redistributed. That's not necessarily a bad thing for advertiser-supported programming, but not a good thing if people routinely clip out the commercials before passing the video along. Where there is a vulnerability, there will be tech companies trying to exploit it -- and, inevitably, others trying to fend them off with tighter security.

The latter category includes Widevine Technologies, which announced today that it was working with Merlin Interactive in Latin America to protect Warner Bros.' online TV channel in the region, WBLA.com. The channel features free, advertiser-supported programming from Warner Bros.'s regional cable network, including full-length episodes of "Smallville," "Without a Trace" and "Gossip Girl." Widevine's technology encrypts the Flash streams to stop them from being recorded and prevent the commercials embedded in the videos from being skipped or removed.

Approaches like Widevine's take away some flexibility from consumers, which could reduce WBLA's appeal. For example, inability to record shows means that they can't be viewed offline, making them less useful to commuters and travelers. Also, locking commercials into a program makes it impossible to personalize advertising or keep it timely. (Widevine says it has developed technology to insert new ads into secure streams, but that's not implemented in the WBLA deployment. Still, other companies, including Hiro Media and YuMe, are already inserting ads into copy-protected videos.) On the other hand, without anti-piracy technology, some programmers wouldn't even experiment with new online distribution models. Ultimately, the kind of experimentation that Widevine's technology encourages -- which also includes Sony Pictures Television and Warner Bros. offering programming on the Gaia Online virtual community for teens -- is in everyone's interests because it can set the right balance between content restrictions, price and user capabilities.

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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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