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Digital Rights In Digital Cinema

We've heard about Napster and the growing need to protect music copyrights in the Internet age. Of course, no one interested in preserving the primacy of theatrical release wants to see a movie pop up on the Internet while that movie is still playing in cinemas. Obviously, there is a very real need to secure movie content, particularly in digital form. Digital movies, in a twist that is both ironic and fortunate, are easier to secure than their celluloid counterparts. However, if not checked, the same systems that provide security could also negatively impact the operation of the exhibition business.

Napster achieved notoriety by offering the consumer a method to share music over public networks, often with no benefit to record companies or artists. Napster did this both by allowing users to freely download music from libraries it maintains on an Internet site, and by allowing users to share files among themselves in a peer-to-peer manner over the Internet. (Peer-to-peer means computer-to-computer, with no intermediary imposed.) Neither method observed the copyright protection due the publishers and artists. In recent months, the company has tried to modify its software to block the sharing of copyrighted material.

No one who makes a living from theatrical motion pictures is looking forward to Napster-like software for movies springing up. Today, for movies, we have inadequate bandwidth and storage on our side. Not so for music files, which can be compressed with MPEG-1 Layer III (MP3) compression, making them compatible with the bandwidth and storage capacities of commonly available Internet connections and computer hardware. But cinema-grade movie files, thus far, are not so easy to manage. Given the rapid advances we regularly experience in the network and computer industry, however, it won't be all that long before the movie industry faces its own Napsters.

The trend in moving towards digital cinema could exacerbate the problem, although it also has the potential to be a big part of the cure. Unlike consumer music, first run movie releases are handled and distributed in a very controlled manner, whether in film or digital form. Imposed electronic and personnel controls in the distribution chain can be very effective in protecting the content. Once in the theatre, however, the responsibility for security is handed off to the exhibitor. Poor booth security can lead to stolen prints, or prints may be "borrowed" for midnight telecine transfers by untrustworthy employees. Booth security is manageable, as it can be tightened if necessary. However, the big threat these days has been patrons with small handheld digital camcorders. This widely available consumer technology allows patrons to easily walk away with a decent copy of the goods and post them on clandestine Internet sites. It's a difficult issue, as none of the parties involved want to succumb patrons to a full body search.

In recent years, there has been talk of techniques in development that prevent camcorder piracy in film exhibition, presumably involving significant modification to film projectors. DRM is the electronic tool used by distributors to define the rules of use.

With the movement towards digital cinema, it is likely that electronic methods will be developed and implemented in the projector to thwart this kind of piracy. Certainly, the digital projector and the digital movie data itself lend themselves quite handily to sophisticated electronic forms of security, providing one of the few compelling reasons to move to this new medium.

With digital movie data will come encryption, and with encryption, the concept of Digital Rights Management (DRM). Let's review the basics of electronic data security. Encrypted data requires an electronic "key" to unlock it. A movie will most likely require many keys, probably as often as one every few minutes. If you don't have the key, you don't unlock the data, and no show takes place. Since the keys themselves are also provided through electronically secure means, the process of obtaining the keys imposes an additional barrier to cross.

The barrier to obtaining keys will be governed by a set of rules. These rules can be very common sense in nature, and will be spelled out as part of the Digital Rights Management data provided by the studio and shipped with the feature to the exhibitor. For instance, the rules may state that the feature can only be played in a particular facility. The rules can be very specific. For example, in the digital world, we won't have the physical hurdles imposed by 70mm and 35mm prints, yet it is inevitable that multiple grades of projection technology will come about. Thus, the rules may require that a specific movie be shown on the digital equivalent of a 70mm projector, versus a more common "35mm" equivalent. The rules could also require that a certain level of security is available, such as having the latest camcorder protection installed in your projectors.

The DRM rules can also impose on your business operation. They may require that you not play the movie until a certain date and time, and only allow you one test run prior to that. They could require that the movie be played only on a specific projector at a specific screen (although we hope to not see such limiting factors introduced). They could require that you only play the movie at specific times during the day. They may require that you not play the movie after a certain date, ensuring that if you wish to do so, you obtain new DRM data from your distributor.

You may have heard the term "backhaul data" or "audit data" applied to digital cinema. Such data could contain information on your play times and who started the feature, for instance. It could also contain information about the health of your system while the movie was played. This information can be controlled by one or more means. One would be under the explicit control of the exhibitor, where the exhibitor chooses who has access to the data. Another could be by through the use of DRM, which is under the control of the content owner. DRM will also define which studios and distributors have electronic access to this data, and which sets of data they have access to. For instance, Sony won't be very keen on Disney having access to data concerning their movies, and vice-versa.

The extent to which the exhibitor has a say in how Digital Rights Management affects their operation must be contractual and negotiable. This negotiation should be conducted on both a movie by movie basis with the studios, as well as with your system supplier and any third party agents. Be sure you are alert to the conditions imposed on the exhibition of a movie, as well as the degree of control you have over logged data.

Digital cinema systems are complex, and the deals that exhibitors will be presented will undoubtedly be equally complex. When it comes to Digital Rights Management, there are serious points that an exhibitor should consider, not only on a movie-to-movie basis, but also when purchasing or leasing a digital cinema system. Be sure to take the time to understand the implications and the degree of control you have over issues imposed by DRM. As always, the resources within NATO are available to help you decide when facing such decisions.

Published in the July 2001 issue of In Focus Magazine


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