More (DivX) ways to get movies from the Web to the TV

Divx_logo_2 DivX announced another ally today: the downloadable movie site CinemaNow. On some unspecified date in the future, the latter will offer customers the option of downloading movies in the DivX format (using the DivX DRM) instead of CinemaNow's usual Windows Media files. DivX's codec is impressive, but the main improvement the deal offers consumers is an easier way to play the movies they rent or buy on their TV set. The DivX DRM enables people to play the files on every DivX-certified device in their personal domains. For most people, that would be a DVD player. And unlike other DRM approaches in the market, DivX enables rented movies to be burned onto disc, not just download-to-own files. In other words, it's a practical living-room solution for online movie rental sites.

Cinemanow_logo Apple, Netflix and have a different strategy for delivering rented movies to TV sets: they stream the flicks to specialized set-top devices (such as the Apple TV, Roku's Netflix box and Sony's back-of-the-TV Bravia Internet Video Link). DivX plays in that arena, too, with its DivX Connected boxes (currently available only from D-Link). The D-Link set-top is a solid entry into the field, although it suffers from the same limitations as everybody else's "media extenders": it's compatible with only a portion of the vast online universe of video. The challenge for DivX and CinemaNow will be to persuade more studios to embrace the DivX format and DRM; so far, the only announced taker in Hollywood is Sony Pictures. They'll need a much more comprehensive lineup than that to make the DivX option a meaningful addition to CinemaNow's service.


UK ISPs to warn file-sharers, but then what?

BPI RIAA deal with MPAA and ISPs in UK to warn p2p file sharers Let's see how many acronyms I can squeeze into this lede. In a deal brokered by the BERR, BPI (the UK version of the RIAA) announced that six leading ISPs had agreed to send warning letters on behalf of the labels and the MPAA to people suspected of illegal p2p downloading. BERR is the UK government's Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which is analogous to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Essentially, pressure from BERR and the threat of legislation motivated the ISPs to stop stiffing the BPI and start compromising. But today's deal involved a relatively painless concession for ISPs. A more interesting question is what enforcement mechanisms, if any, the ISPs will put in place to give the warning letters teeth.

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CDT on watermarks and privacy

Center_for_democracy_and_technology The Center for Democracy and Technology weighed in today on the delicate subject of privacy and digital watermarks, recommending a series of best practices for protecting consumers against the unauthorized use of personal information. It's a tricky issue because watermarks -- unique digital identifiers that can't be detected with the naked eye -- are emerging as an anti-piracy tool, in which case the whole point is to identify the source of an infringing file. Nevertheless, as the 17-page report (download here) notes, even watermarks used for such purposes are subject to abuses that could invade innocent consumers' privacy or, worse, expose them to lawsuits for infringements they did not commit. And as the use of watermarks in online and digital media spreads, the threats proliferate. As the report puts it:

Perhaps the most frequently raised privacy concern is the idea that watermarks could enable increased monitoring, recording, or disclosure of an individual’s media purchases or usage. The fear, in other words, is that watermarking could compromise an individual’s ability to use and enjoy lawfully acquired media on a private, anonymous basis. Particular media usage choices could be sensitive if exposed, or could contribute to the creation of profiles of individuals’ overall media purchase and consumption habits, which might be used in ways that the individuals do not expect or understand. Other possible privacy concerns include the risk that watermarks could contain personal information that could be exposed to third parties, and the risk that errors in or manipulation of watermark data could paint a false picture of an individual’s behavior and perhaps lead to adverse consequences, including potential legal liability.

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Two-way battle over; cable wins

Sony_logo After a couple of years playing hard to get, Sony got into bed with the cable industry Tuesday and embraced CableLabs' tru2way standard for interactive-cable-ready devices. That makes at least six four major consumer electronics manufacturers who have signed onto the CableLabs standard for two-way plug-and-play (and, more important, the license agreement that so many CE executives deplored), the others being Panasonic, Samsung and LG.

This subject is more than a little esoteric, but there's a couple of real-world effects that are easy to identify. One is that Sony's move strikes another blow against the cursed cable converter box and its monthly rental fees. The box's functions should have been built into TV sets years ago, but cable operators and set makers were unable to agree on a standard approach to interactivity that would work on any system across the country. With Sony's acquiescence, tru2way (formerly known as OCAP) is now effectively that standard. The second real-world impact is that Sony's capitulation means there's little chance we'll see a cable-ready digital TV that fully integrates cable networks and services with complementary and competing programming from the Internet. The deals signed with CableLabs consign Internet content and other non-cable services to a program guide separate from the cable guide. The stricture rules out a guide that, for example, mixes on-demand movies from Netflix or Hulu with those from HBO.

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aPC: Can't take a hint?

Apocalypse production crew aPC warez pre-release music site defendant convicted of criminal copyright infringement The Justice Department put out a press release late last night touting the conspiracy conviction of 25-year-old Barry Gitarts of Brooklyn, a member of an online music and software bootlegging group known as aPC (aka the aPOCALYPSE pRODUCTION cREW or the Apocalypse Crew). The jury verdict was notable to the RIAA because it was the first federal criminal trial of a defendant accused primarily of online music piracy. That's not what got my attention, however.

Gitarts was actually the 15th member of the group to be convicted. The other 14 pleaded guilty to crimes related to the activities of the aPC, which once was one of the release groups that sat atop the online piracy pyramid. More interesting, all but one of these defendants were identified and charged months after the former leader of the aPC, then 21-year-old Mark Shumaker,  pleaded guilty to federal charges of criminal copyright infringement stemming from a series of raids in December 2001.

Although some online commenters say Shumaker wasn't part of aPC at the time of the raid, the feds focused on his activities in that group when they announced his conviction. In other words, anyone with a clue at aPC should have found something else to do with his or her free time. Instead, the group remained active until the following April, when FBI agents swept in and seized servers, logs and other incriminating evidence of the group's activities. The fact that more than a dozen aPC members have joined Shumaker among the ranks of felons is a sign of the insularity of the warez scene and its participants' sense of invulnerability, founded in part on their anonymity (scene members often know nothing about one another except the names they use online). Most members of the scene don't get caught, it's true, just as most file-sharers don't wind up on the receiving end of an RIAA lawsuit. Still, given the heads-up provided by Shumaker's arrest and conviction, you'd think the aPC would at least have changed its name.

The APC logo above was created by an artist who goes by the initials rnz.


Netflix, Roku bridge the Internet-TV gap

Roku_playerTwo things struck me about Roku's newly announced $100 Netflix Player, a book-sized set-top box that lets people watch streamed video files from Netflix on their TVs. First, it was priced lower than anything I'd previously seen in the "digital media adapter" category (i.e., devices that bridge the gap between the Internet and the TV). And second, it delivered less than any of those other devices. All it can do, in fact, is connect to Netflix's website, select a movie or TV show to stream, then display the chosen program on a TV set.

And that's all it should do, at least for now, argued  Anthony Wood, Roku's founder and CEO (and the guy who started ReplayTV, which introduced the DVR alongside TiVo). Some consumer-electronics gurus would disagree, noting that people are reluctant to stack more black boxes into living-room shelves already crowded with disc players, recorders, amplifiers, game consoles and cable or satellite boxes. But Wood has developed and marketed a series of digital media adapters over the past 5+ years, so he speaks with some authority on this issue.

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The future of entertainment, USC style

Usc_entertainment_technology_center The entertainment industry has been pressuring colleges directly and indirectly to teach students the do's and don'ts of copyrights, hoping such lessons will help abate online piracy. But at USC's Entertainment Technology Center, students often are the ones giving lessons to Hollywood and the high-tech world about the right way to deliver movies and TV shows to consumers who are increasingly mobile and digital.

Etc_screen_grab_3 The ETC, a 15-year-old branch of the university's School of Cinematic Arts, was established as a forum for tech companies and studios to collaborate -- a good example being the center's work on digital cinema. A more recent project is the Anytime/Anywhere Content Lab, a place for ETC staff to put a variety of cutting edge (or even bleeding edge) entertainment equipment and services together to see how they work. Or don't, as the case may be.

David Wertheimer, the ETC's executive director and a former digital guru at Paramount, said that while studios focus on their product, the lab concentrates on the user. The hope, he said, is that its work will show studios and tech companies how to "meet in the middle and provide new kinds of products" that appeal to the next generation of consumers. In addition to interviewing USC students on campus every week about their media consumption habits and attitudes, the ETC brings about 20 students into the lab to talk to its board and try out some of the gear it has assembled. It's not a scientific sampling, but the ETC does try to draw specimens participants from a range of backgrounds and fields of study.

The lab takes up a portion of the ETC's office, which is planted in an industrial strip between the USC campus and the 110. The current configuration includes a home theater, a conference area and a room for testing and experimentation (i.e., a place to answer questions like "Can I make it do this?"). The centerpiece, though, is an 18' x 20' demo room with eight flat-panel screens hung on the walls at eye level. Below the screens sit black metal boxes of various shapes and sizes -- amplifiers, disc players, computers, hard drives, iPods, cell phones, networking gear and the like. It's a bit like an electronics retailer's showroom, designed to make it easy for the staff to add, subtract and connect things. "It could end up looking like NORAD and be totally stressful to people," Wertheimer cracked. The intended vibe, though, is more like the living room you wish you had at home. If you were me, that is.

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Cox: BitTorrent interruptus?

Broken_connection The public drubbing Comcast has received for interfering with BitTorrent uploads may not have been enough to stop other ISPs from doing the very same thing. The Associated Press reported today that a new study by the Max Planck institute found that Cox, a major cable operator, appeared to have taken a page from Comcast and was sending reset packets to disconnect BitTorrent uploaders. Of the 151 computers on Cox's network that ran the institute's test, 82 were blocked (you can read about the methodology here). That's 54%. The only other U.S. ISP to have such a high percentage of blocked uploads was Comcast, where 62% of the 788 hosts were blocked, the AP reported.

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Defunct TorrentSpy kicked while down

Torrentspy_logo U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper has handed BitTorrent index site TorrentSpy a bill it couldn't possibly pay. Having ruled in favor of the major Hollywood studios' lawsuit in December, Cooper awarded the studios damages of $30,000 per movie allegedly infringed with the assistance of TorrentSpy's site. The total for the 3,699 movies listed in the studios' complaint: $110,970,000. Wow. (You can download a PDF of the ruling here.)

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Apple, Hollywood and windows

Apple_itunes_store_movies_2008Apple closed two gaps today with its announcement about downloadable movies for sale through the iTunes Store. The one it emphasized was the agreement by six major studios to pony up their films the day they were available on DVD. This was a no-brainer for Hollywood. In fact, according to a publicist for Vudu, the studios have long been providing downloads for sale through other online vendors "day and date" with DVD releases. The more interesting element here is that Apple has finally persuaded Hollywood's largest studios to sell movies through iTunes.

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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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