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Jon Healey on Hollywood's love-hate relationship with technology.

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AACS Diggs a hole

May 2, 2007 |  4:35 pm

Aacs_logo Forgive me for posting a bit late on this one -- we editorial writers had a long confab this morning on Iraq (our new boss suggested it was time to figure out exactly where we were on the issue) (and no, I'm not going to tell you now, so you'll have to keep watching this space). Anyway, Hollywood the group that provides anti-copying technology for high-definition discs triggered an online rebellion this week when it tried to stop websites from publicizing a way to circumvent the copy controls on HD DVD discs. The episode recalled the movie industry's efforts in 1999-2000 to stop sites from publishing or linking to a software program to circumvent the locks on DVDs. Then, as now, the crackdown on the offending code sparked a fight at the grass roots that caused the code to proliferate -- the opposite result of what the industry had sought.

It's never wise to try to stop information from spreading through a network designed to route data around blockages. In 1999, Hollywood didn't have much choice: the breach caused by DeCSS could not be repaired, leaving every copy-protected DVD vulnerable to ripping and redistributing over the Internet. But HD DVDs (and the rival Blu-ray discs) are protected by the Advanced Access Content System, or AACS, which was designed to be renewable: whenever an element of the system is breached, it can be replaced with a new set of locks. That's already happening. The first wave of hacks to AACS were accomplished by exploiting security flaws in two software programs, WinDVD and PowerDVD. Manufacturers of both programs have pushed out new versions that plug those holes, and new high-definition discs will automatically disable the previous versions of the software.

Digg_logo So why pick a public fight with hackers by sending letters demanding that Google, Digg and other sites take down web pages that instructed users how to use the soon-to-be-inoperative circumvention tools? After all, bootlegged, unlocked versions of existing HD DVD and Blu-ray discs are already available online for those who want to download them illegally. Michael Ayers, chairman of the AACS business group, offered two reasons in an interview today. First, the group wanted to prevent more titles from being copied illegally while it waits for the exploitable versions of WinDVD and PowerDVD to be disabled. And second, it wanted to send a message that it won't stand idly by while AACS is attacked.

That sounds reasonable enough. Nevertheless, you have to wonder whether, on balance, the tiff strengthened or weakened Hollywood's position. Meanwhile, the studios continue to work with consumer-electronics and computer manufacturers on a technology that could undermine one of the often-cited rationales for circumventing AACS. Called "managed copy," it's a feature that enables buyers of HD DVDs and Blu-ray discs to create a limited number of copies of their movies to store on home video jukeboxes and portable video players. The feature has been delayed while the industries work out details for an audio watermarking system designed to stop bootlegged high-def discs from playing on AACS-equipped players and software, but an agreement is expected soon. At that point, the question will be whether studios try to charge extra for the ability to make those copies -- a charge that would undoubtedly rankle consumers who believe they have the right to make personal-use copies the discs they buy. Naturally, studio executives argue that there is no such right, and that a disc that can be copied should cost more than one that can't. On the other hand, their ability to collect an extra fee is entirely dependent on the market's willingness to pay for it. Given the volume of movie file-swapping, it seems more important for Hollywood to make legal products more compelling to consumers than to make them more expensive.

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