The United Kingdom's British Sky Broadcasting plc has a plan to download first-run movies, to be stored on a direct-to-home satellite receiver's digital video recorder in encrypted format. When a viewer wants to see the movie and buys the decryption key, the film unspools — without tying up a video-on-demand server.
Although BSkyB has yet to deploy the service commercially, the capability offers a stark warning of the kind of competition that lurks ahead.
It's easy to surmise that what BSkyB — owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. — does in Europe will eventually find its way to DirecTV Inc.'s skies over the United States, once News completes its merger with the direct-broadcast satellite provider's parent company, Hughes Electronics Corp.
What emerges is likely to be a head-on assault against the headend server-based video-on-demand services found now on cable TV systems.
Such offerings, of course, require the vital ingredient of copy protection to assure studios that their movies are safely — and financially — secure as they wend through the digital pipeline, wired or otherwise.
Cable operators are already deeply enmeshed in digital copy protection and its companion technologies of digital-rights management (DRM) and signal protection. But the avalanche of delivery and encoding systems — plus competitive threats, such as Internet-protocol TV services (e.g., the studio-backed MovieLink) and BSkyB's set-top VOD concept — add to the urgency of protective solutions.
Time Warner Cable's closely veiled MystroTV service and Comcast Corp.'s proposed personal-TV initiative are the kinds of projects that will require strong digital-rights management systems (including copy protection) to assure studios that their movies will not be pirated.
More immediately, the ongoing subpoena assault from the Recording Industry Association of America against alleged music file-swappers has brought cable TV access provider units to the forefront.
Although cable's self-confessed role in these cases is simply that of a carrier, the underlying issue of transmitting digital content — or in these cases, a customer's storing and retransmitting such content — offers another strong reminder of the DRM imperative.
A Multichannel News
canvass of operators and suppliers finds serious concern and activity, but very little consolidated thinking about copy protection.
At several large MSOs, the responsibility is understandably split between the video division, which needs to protect its network signals — and especially the emerging VOD offerings — and the high-speed Internet unit, which is generally "hands-off," functioning as a carrier for the copy-protected content served by third-party providers.
Almost everywhere, the chore of creating and maintaining DRM is being turned over to technology suppliers, including VOD providers such as SeaChange International Inc.; headend and set-top box suppliers, such as Motorola Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta Inc.; and various collaborative alliances.
Rarely is there an integrated policy for system-wide DRM.
"They are two different businesses," insists a Time Warner Cable spokesman. "The only overarching factor is the need to protect copyrighted material.
"In the Internet space, we see ourselves as a link so that our content partners bear the responsibility to monitor how customers are using their content. On the video channels, we go after piracy."
For now, he added, Time Warner's focus "is not so much on copy protection as on security of signal and network."
Charter Communications Inc. contends that "it is the sole responsibility of the IP content aggregator to safeguard and protect the content on behalf of the content owner," as a spokesman said.
"In the event we entered into relationships with a content provider such as MovieLink, we would ensure that MovieLink had a DRM solution that the content providers approved or certified and that Charter was indemnified for such distribution," the spokesman added.
"[If] Charter invested in and created its own IP content streaming distribution network, we would apply our own DRM solution for high-value content," he added, without suggesting that Charter has any such IP streaming plans on its plate.
With Charter's VOD offerings, there's no specific DRM solution. But because each VOD transaction essentially uses a closed system between the server and the set-top box, a customer "must be authorized and authenticated prior to a session being set up."
Richard Green, president of Cable Television Laboratories Inc., the cable industry's collective research arm, said the industry is caught in the middle.
"We want to get the best products from Hollywood and other content developers," which could mean strict copy-protection safeguards, he said. "But we don't want to infuriate our customers by saying you cannot see these shows."
Added Green: "The digital transition has created a whole new set of issues and opportunities. Pirating is much more difficult in the digital domain, but it has opened a whole new set of … requirements. [We] need to find the right matches to make this work."
CableLabs itself has not been tasked with resolving or coalescing the various cable DRM solutions.
Industry vendors — and would-be suppliers — are approaching copy-protection issues from many directions.
The evolving plug-and-play interoperability agreement among cable and consumer-electronics companies addresses some of the issues, although the major movie studios are conspicuously absent from that process.
Suppliers include set-top provider Motorola Inc. Its MediaCipher technology attempts to coordinate the set-top and headend capabilities to allow MSOs to comply with both the plug-and-play agreement and the requirements of various content rightsholders, such as studios.
USA Video Interactive Corp., a Connecticut firm that develops Internet media-delivery services and systems, is among the newcomers trying to sell DRM technology to cable operators.
USA Video's "MediaSentinel" digital-watermark technology is in its final test phase right now, and president Ed Molina said he's started talks about adoption with cable and content providers.
MediaSentinel embeds an encrypted identifier into original authorized video content.
That code appears on subsequent copies, allowing content holders to track the source of unauthorized versions. Molina envisions that MSOs would pay a licensing fee, probably through their technology vendors, on a per-stream or per-set-top basis.
"MediaSentinel doesn't necessarily prevent the theft itself," Molina said. "But content that escapes can be traced back to the source."
There are many ways to attack the video signal, but none known can destroy the embedded digital watermark, he said.
"With all the effort that the MSOs are making to build a wall around content through conditional access and encryption, it still manages to get out," said Molina.
Dov Rubin, vice president and general manager of NDS Americas Inc., a technology firm known for its conditional-access products that also is active in digital video recording and other security formats, said he understands why MSOs may be "scared of taking the next step."
He suggested that the two-way links of the bi-directional plug-and-play pact will enhance security immensely.
Moreover, if proper security systems are implemented as that two-way process expands, "cable has the ability to kick satellite's ass-ets," Rubin said.
SeaChange International Inc. director of broadband systems Joe Ambeault is also sympathetic to the MSOs' plight regarding DRM decisions.
"It's not [simply] a chore they have to carry out on behalf of their suppliers," he said. "They have as much to lose as the person who owns the content.
"The prime business driver is protecting the content for the VOD industry. Everyone is sensitive to the need for protection from the very beginning."
Ambeault points out that the cable industry is finally moving toward "pre-encryption," a process that has been underway for several years.
In addition to interoperability, the underlying premise is that even if some hacker could get into the VOD server without the key, the only thing to find there would be unviewable Moving Picture Experts Group streams.
Real Networks Inc. is still seeking its first cable customer for its Helix DRM solution. But it's successfully courted several MSOs — Comcast Corp., Charter, Cablevision Systems Corp. and Road Runner (the Time Warner Cable-owned data service) — to distribute its Rhapsody digital music service.
Via those agreements, broadband customers can listen to and download hundreds of thousands of music tracks — all digitally secure, of course — that can be purchased via subscriptions or à la carte.