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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[March 6, 2002]

Dot Com Commerce

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions


Making Friends With The Online Medium

If I ever meet Tom Cruise in person, I'm going to ask him for eight bucks. Why does Tom Cruise owe me eight dollars? Because not only did I sit through Mission: Impossible 2, I paid for the dubious privilege of being bored to fits with inane dialog, an improbable plot and ho-hum special effects. The way I look at it, it's all his fault.

It's enough to make all of us wish we didn't have to pay for some of the movies we see. And some of us aren't. As prescient individuals could have predicted ten minutes after the Napster versus the Recording Industry Association of America brouhaha started, the next battles will be fought in DVD land, with the film and television studios on one side, and the manufacturers of DVD burners and developers of software to decode encryption on the other. Because right now, there is no reason why you and I can't download movies from the Internet and make copies for all our friends. And it scares the movie industry to an over-acted, dramatic death.

For the past two years, the movie industry has been quietly battling a group of foes that includes programmers, academics, free-speech proponents and people who are plain sick and tired of paying too much for really, really crappy movies. (OK, so the latter group may not have filed any lawsuits yet, but it does exist.) This year, there are some new foes. In the first corner, there are the technologies that are making possible the downloading and swapping of movies and television programs in the same manner in which Napster, Diamond Rio and others made possible the sharing of songs in MP3 format. In the other corner are those individuals who are more than happy to share and view films and TV shows they download from online friends. Where does the Motion Picture Association of America aim first? Well, since it's cost-prohibitive to chase after every film buff with a computer and a broadband Internet connection, the target of choice is the organizations and manufacturers whose products and services enable the file sharing practice.

At the end of last year, the film industry took a blow that involved the reversal of a judgment that had initially banned programmers from publishing the code of a program called DeCSS, which decodes the scrambling built into DVDs to prevent them from being duplicated. (DeCSS was originally developed for the fairly innocent reason of allowing DVDs to be viewed on computers running Linux.) A judge had initially ruled that the software violated the ubiquitous Digital Millennium Copyright Act; an appeals court later ruled that being prevented from publishing the code violated the developer's free speech rights. (The California appeals code implied that it considers code to be a form of speech.)

At the middle of this growing furor is a company called DivXNetworks, which offers a new file format called DivX and compression technology (also referred to as MPEG-4) that allows television programs and films to be exchanged over a broadband Internet connection. The resulting AVI files can be played on DivX's own software, called Playa, or on Windows Media Player, provided the user download the codec driver from DivX's Web site. The DivX video content can then be shared in the now-familiar peer-to-peer method that is still in existence, despite the efforts of enough lawyers to fill Cleveland.

Another target of the Motion Picture Association of America is ReplayTV, a company that makes a digital video recorder that among other things, links to a user's broadband Internet connection and allows for the sharing of video with other individuals who have a ReplayTV unit. This feature presumably concerns the MPAA because it allows users to download content from peer-to-peer sites, opening the door to the film industry's nightmare scenario of happy file swappers sending each other copies of Killer Clowns From Outer Space in exchange for other high-quality classics, such as Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter.

In an interesting twist on the issue, Wired magazine reported that a group of high-tech companies recently sent a letter to the major Hollywood studios (Disney was at the top of the list) as well as Senator Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, because they have been active in working to pass a bill requiring hardware companies to build copyright protection directly into PCs. The high-tech consortium, comprised of Microsoft, Motorola, IBM, Intel and others, has stated that they will work and cooperate with the film industry to develop technologies that will help control piracy, but strongly disagree with the studios' and Senator Hollings' stance that anti-piracy methods be required in new computers. Bill Gates versus Mickey Mousethings could get interesting.

Reportedly, most of the major studios have begun to develop their own proprietary encryption methods (a nightmare in the making, if you ask me). Encryption attempts, as any hacker will tell you, are usually a bad joke and can be gotten around almost as quickly as they are developed and implemented.

I'm not sure what the answer is. I do realize that film studios have a right to protect themselves from piracy, just as the record companies do, but the reactive, draconian measures these companies and organizations have attempted to push through are most definitively not the answer. Like it or not, both recording studios and film studios need to make friends with the online mediumthey have no choice.

Hollywood's tactic thus far has been to try and completely eliminate the technologies that make the distribution of content on the Internet possible. (Remember when Hollywood tried to take steps to ban VCRs shortly after their development in the late 1970s? The studios believed if people could record movies from TV, they would never pay to see another movie again.)

So what happens, I ask, when the entertainment industry succeeds in making sure the equipment and software is never created, and then decides it would like to put together a legitimate business model for successfully distributing film studios' wares via broadband? At that time, will they issue the order for the computer companies to add the technologies back in? Should consumers and the high-tech industries be manipulated because Hollywood can't make enough money on films in the cinemas?

I have a suggestionquit paying actors $25 million a movie, and producers will have some pocket change left over at the end of the day. Nobody is worth that much money. Directors can start doing lunch at Taco Bell, like the rest of us. Maybe the fallout will be that film studios will no longer be able to afford to make bad movies. It's a pity it didn't happen soon enough to save me from Mission: Impossible 2.

The author can be contacted at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com. Yes, believe it or not, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter was a real 1965 film.


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