The Cablevision DVR ruling

Cablevision_ceo_james_dolan_2003_ap It's conventional wisdom that copyright law doesn't keep up with technology. How could it? And yet the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, in its decision Monday in the Cablevision DVR case, somehow made the leap into the Web 2.0 world without tripping over 32-year-old provisions of the main federal copyright statute. It's an important ruling that has intriguing implications for products and services with recording features, potentially extending to Web-based companies the protection that the Supreme Court gave to home recorders.

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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.


The NFL takes games online

Nfl_logo My colleague Meg James reported Saturday that the NFL will be going online this year with its Sunday night games -- not exactly its most valuable product, but not a bad place to conduct an experiment in online distribution. Although this is close to a no-brainer, it represents something of a leap forward in advertiser-supported sports programming online. All told, 17 games will be shown live on and (NBC has the TV rights to the game), starting with a Giants-Redskins game on, umm, Thursday Sept. 4.

The most significant thing about this one-year test is that, unlike what NBC and other networks do with their prime-time schedules, the free online football games will compete directly with the versions on TV.

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A Paramount movie integrated into Sony web programming

Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging movie promoted on Bebo through Sofia's DiarySofia's Diary branded entertainment on Bebo This is so meta, I'm having trouble wrapping my brain around it. Sofia's Diary is an "interactive Web drama" that's produced by Sony Pictures Television International. Its episodes and related programming -- e.g., the main character's blog -- are on Sofia's Diary is branded entertainment, which means that its characters and plot twists are designed to advance an advertiser's message. Anyway, today Bebo announced the integration of a new advertiser into the program: Paramount Pictures UK. Characters and other elements from a new Paramount teen movie,  "Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging," were inserted into the world of Sofia's Diary for a two-episode run, timed to the movie's opening weekend. In other words, Sofia's faux reality was tuned to promote a faux reality from a different medium (film).

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Consumer groups blast MPAA proposal (a dog bites man story)

Mpaa_logo If you had the chance to watch a movie on cable or satellite TV before it came out on DVD, what sort of trade-offs would you be willing to make? Would you pay more to watch it than a DVD rental or even a movie ticket? Would you accept having to watch the movie in one sitting, with no breaks for phone calls or snacks? Would you lose interest if you couldn't record the movie to watch again later?

These are the sorts of questions the market typically answers, but that's not how it necessarily works in the entertainment industry. This week, seven consumer advocacy groups urged the FCC not to let the studios conduct the experiment they proposed in early video-on-demand releases. The reason: the MPAA wants to deploy an anti-piracy technique that, in the advocacy groups' opinion, would give the studios too much control over the technology used in homes.

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Downloadable movies: Sony and Jaman

Jaman_logo_2 Paramount_logo Two announcements today about downloadable movies illustrate Hollywood's one-step-forward, one-step back approach to this market. Jaman, an online video-on-demand service that specializes in indie fare, announced a licensing deal with Paramount that gives the site its first major-studio content. It's a nice pick-up for Jaman, which distributes moves in part through a secure file-sharing network -- the kind of technique that was once a non-starter with Hollywood. But unlike the other films offered by Jaman, Paramount's titles won't be available in high definition. The restriction reflects the widespread aversion in Hollywood to sending high-def movie files to PCs -- you won't find high-def titles at Movielink, CinemaNow or Amazon's Unbox, either. Nor will the films be available to rent on Jaman as soon as they reach the local video store; instead, they'll have to wait several weeks for the video-on-demand window.

Sony_playstation_logo Intertrust_graphic The studios have been willing to provide high-def downloads to a handful of specialized living-room devices, such as the XBox 360 game console, the Apple TV, the Vudu box and now the Sony PS3. (Kudos to my colleagues Dawn Chmielewski and Alex Pham for breaking that story months ago.) On the plus side, the PS3 download service uses the Marlin DRM developed in part by Sony and Intertrust Technologies (a company that counts Sony as a major investor). Marlin, which is designed to interoperate with other DRMs, can grant playback rights to a set of personal devices. Initially, Sony will use it to let people move downloaded films and TV shows from their PS3s to their PSPs. What it won't do, though, is let people move the programs they rent or buy to their laptops or desktop PCs -- at least not right away. That's a galling omission, particularly for download-to-own titles. Marlin DRM licenses can be updated remotely, so if Sony changes its mind and allows movies to be transferred onto computers, the new flexibility can be applied retroactively to movies already purchased. But even if Sony does relax the restrictions, high-def titles probably won't be allowed outside the PS3-PSP-TV world. That begs the question of why anyone would buy a title when the only way to preserve the bits is to tie up scarce space on the PlayStation's hard drive.

Sony's CEO, Sir Howard Stringer, has made interoperability and connectivity a priority for the company. In fact, he pledged last month that 90% of Sony's product categories would include devices with networking capability within three years. It will be interesting to see how Sony meshes that goal with its high-definition evangelizing and its studio's reservations about the PC.

Nifty "Trust" illustration courtesy of the Intertrust website.


DVD copying in the US, UK

Futuresource_logo It's been an article of faith for the entertainment industry that unauthorized copying = lost sales. The MPAA seems to be the market leader on this front, citing mind-boggling estimates of the billions of dollars in revenue siphoned off by piracy. This week, Futuresource Consulting Ltd., a UK research firm, released a study that purports to confirm the conventional wisdom, at least in part. According to the study, about a third of those interviewed said they had made copies of pre-recorded DVDs in the previous six months. That's up from about a quarter in 2007. Had they not been able to make those copies, a high percentage of those surveyed -- 77% in the U.S., 63% in the U.K. -- would have bought at least a few of them. Strong stuff, but not surprisingly, there are some notable caveats.

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That's advertainment

The Rookie Fox 24 Degree deodorant branded entertainment advertising Apologies for stealing the headline from an editorial we ran Monday about the FCC and product placement, but it applies just as well to this post. In the aforementioned opinion piece, the Times' editorial board inveighed against the nanny-state notion that adults can't ward off the siren song of embedded advertising without the government's help. Still, I sense that we might be on the cusp of a new wave in video that intertwines advertising and entertainment more completely than before, and also more subtly. Call it the era of "branded entertainment," brought to you by content providers who can't (or won't) make people pay to watch their programming. And although I think market forces will serve as a powerful deterrent to deceptive behavior, I wonder if even the most in-your-face disclosures about the role of advertisers won't be erased as clips bounce from site to site to site.

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3D movies spread far beyond the House of Wax

Read_d_3d_logo In March I noted that digital cinema rollouts were fast approaching a critical mass. In recent weeks, digital 3D deployments have gained a similar momentum, albeit on a smaller scale. In particular, Beverly Hills-based Real D had two big announcements in quick succession. On May 20 it announced that Regal Entertainment, the world's largest theater chain, would add Real D 3D systems to 1,500 screens, or more than 22% of its U.S. venues. Then on Tuesday, another major U.S. chain, Cinemark, announced plans to add Real D systems to up to 1,500 screens. That's almost a third of Cinemark's total. These commitments should push Real D, which can be seen on a little more than 1,000 screens today, to about 5,000 screens by the end of next year, said Elizabeth Brooks, the company's chief marketing officer. Its closest competitor, Dolby, has deployed its 3D systems to about 30 U.S. theaters and numerous others worldwide.

Because these 3D deployments rely on digital projectors, it's natural that 3D would pick up steam as digital cinema deployments accelerated. According to Brooks, installing the equipment needed to show Real D 3D movies -- the special lens for the projector, the reflective screen and the supply of 3D glasses -- costs about $25,000, or 25%-40% of the cost of converting an exhibition space to digital. With 3D films easily generating two to three times the box office of their 2D counterparts (a margin attributable in part to the $1 to $3 premium charged for tickets to 3D showings) cinemas can recover their costs in a week. Still, cinema owners have a hard time justifying the investment unless they can count on more 3D movies being released.

That part of the picture is brightening, too.

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Allow me to infringe on Jon Healey's goodwill and moral rights in the Bit Player franchise...

Larry Lessig had a fascinating copyright idea in the other Times a while back, which gives an interesting perspective on this L.A. Times story about J.R.R. Tolkien's descendants' fight for some of the gross on the New Line Cinema "Lord of the Rings" adaptations. Writes Rachel Abramowitz:

Tolkien obviously isn't Peter Jackson, who directed the franchise, or Liv Tyler or Viggo Mortensen, who starred in it, or New Line Cinema, the studio that financed it, or Miramax, which owned the film rights for a second but couldn't get the movie made, or producer Saul Zaentz, who bought the rights in 1976. He's just the guy who dreamed up the cosmology, the whole shebang of hobbits and dwarfs, orcs, ents, wargs, trolls, whatnot. "Three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky, Seven for the Dwarf-Lords in their halls of stone, Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die, One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne." Those were old John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's words.

But he's dead, so why should Hollywood share any of the dough?

In reference to a far less lucrative literary franchise, here's a good reason why not.

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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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