[The Editor's Spin]

Don't Tread on Me Data

David R. Guenette
EMedia Professional, May 1997
Copyright © Online Inc.

The good news for the CD industry is that packet writing, long promised and enthusiastically projected, is finally hitting the market. And the first CD-Rewritable drive--with Ricoh's release of their MP6200S--is now out on the shelves too. I should be happy. After all, these developments bespeak a sea change in the business.

Unfortunately, there is another sea change crashing upon us, and this one is a real washout. The tide for hardware-based digital copy protection seems to turning against the wishes of those in the computer industry who see encryption mandates as complicating an already too-complicated platform, raising the costs of an already too-expensive platform, and adding too much control to too few when the promise of the PC--as in personal computer--is to make communication more open to more of us.

The recent DVD-Video initiatives from the DVD Consortium's Copy Protection Technical Working Group, or CPTWG, bodes ill for the PC as we have known it, lumps and all. First, there is CSS, a chip- or software-based digital decryption specification outlined not just for DVD-Video players but for any and all parts of a PC that could access DVD-Video. Not only is the move to mandate CSS so widely intrusive, expensive, market-delaying, and contrary to the basic notion that a computer should be able to manipulate data--remember, computers don't copy programs, people do--but it is overly restrictive to basic liberty. Add APS, a Macrovision-type control of analog video output, and things start looking ugly, indeed.

In fact, it is suddenly looking like there are a whole lot of connections between the Clipper Chip business, which pits the Federal Government against the likes of the Electronic Freedom Foundation and other "mind your own dang business" folk in an ongoing political drama, and with the CPTWG taking on the computer industry at large. It looks like the DVD-Video encryption scheme may well be another manifestation of the powers that be--even more horrifyingly, this time, in the form of Big Studio--insisting that they have the right to dictate the form and shape of computing machinery. Think about the encryption schemes being put in place for cable modems and digital data broadcasting, to name two more examples, and the emergence of centralized control of the data domain is hard to deny.

One particular twist in the challenge of designing a CSS decryption system into a DVD-Video playback card is the likelihood of the need to obtain a license from the Japanese Government, quite possibly right down to the neighborhood system integrator level. I'm not much of a chauvinist, and I'm not a rabid anti-One-Worlder, but I do find myself wondering if anyone in his or her right mind can think that the current scheme to copy-protect DVD-Video--with all of its video data decryption/decoding/bus handling/output control requirements--makes any real practical sense?

But indeed, the big media companies are thinking a lot more about cents, and how to keep it in their pockets. I mean, the big media companies very much like to centrally control intellectual property; that is, after all, what broadcast and theater distribution is all about. And if they have to steamroller computer users by insisting on such severe DVD-Video playback restrictions that the computing platform itself is compromised, well, so be it, apparently.

If you're waiting for the great powers of Computerdom to counterbalance the great digital data grab going on with DVD, keep in mind the dark side of convergence. Keep in mind that Toshiba, Philips, Sony, and Matsushita--to name a few big computer companies--are part of even larger consumer electronics or media companies. Will Microsoft or Intel save the day? Please. It is bad enough that many computer companies have devastating crushes on Hollywood, but the convergence factor works both ways, and the giants of Computerville may very well like the idea of being among the media titans. That's what I'd bet.

Lest you think the DVD-Video issue is a tempest in a teapot, realize that at best you may need either to choose to be DVD-Video-compliant--with its attendant restrictions--or look to DVD as a big data container for all things other than DVD-Video. So much for the new data omnibus.

The only cure that comes to mind is a tough one, since it demands we ignore the once-vaunted convergence of consumer and computer technologies and markets. If Hollywood insists on treating DVD-Video as their own proprietary format, then electronic publishers and data distributors of all stripes--from corporate document image managers and CD networkers, to interactive trainers and consumer game developers--can easily settle for the open platforms of DVD-ROM, MPEG-1, and real interactivity. It seems too bad, but sometimes the price of liberty is eternal disappointment.


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