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Burning Questions

Newfoxlogo It didn't take long for the brickbats to start flying after News Corp. announced its plan to sell downloadable movies through MySpace and other Web siblings. I have to agree that charging full price for a movie that can't be burned onto a regular DVD seems doomed to failure, although it probably won't matter for a $1.99 episode of 24. Until home media servers move beyond the oddity stage, at least, DVDs are the storage format of choice for people's movie collections, and those discs need to play on a regular DVD player, not just in a PC's DVD drive. Otherwise, customers are left to watch X-Men: The Last Stand on their 17" computer monitor -- or connect their PC to their living-room TV, a behavior too geeky for most people but not geeky enough to be aspirational (besides, the downloads won't work on a Mac).
I know, I know, Fox made a big deal out of the fact that the movies could be transferred to a portable device. Just not the popular kind.
The fundamental problem here is that CSS -- the form of encryption used on prepackaged DVDs -- isn't available yet for discs burned on home computers. It's not a technological problem so much as a compatibility issue. The electronics and entertainment companies that control CSS didn't want the technology used on cheap recordable DVDs in part because too many older DVD players wouldn't recognize the homemade discs. In a little-noticed announcement earlier this month, the companies said they've come up with a solution -- requiring customized recordable DVDs that are compatible with more players -- and they expect to allow the first use of CSS on homemade discs late this year. To have any chance of succeeding in the short term, Fox will have to make that kind of DVD burning available to downloaders, instead of relying solely on Microsoft's DRM.
One might argue -- OK, I have argued -- that by the time movies are available for downloading, bootlegged versions of the DVD are already available online. People who want to steal the movie already have a perfectly good (and free) source, so why would they pay $20 for the official download? The answer from executives at other studios, who also insist on encrypting their downloads, is that providing movies without DRM would breed the kind of buy-and-copy piracy that infects the music industry. People who wouldn't go to the trouble of downloading a pirated movie would happily burn copies of legitimately downloaded titles for all their friends. That seems like an assumption that could be tested in the marketplace, but don't hold your breath for any experiments. The studios rely too much on DVD sales to take even a slender chance of undermining them.


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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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