Finally, Technology for Legally Burning Copy-Protected Content

It's ironic: The copy protection created to stop the illegal copying of DVDs is the same technology that has prevented users from legally downloading paid-for content and then burning it to a DVD for playback in their living rooms. At the time the copy-protection rules were created, they had no provision for user recording of protected content to a recordable DVD, as opposed to a factory-replicated DVD-ROM.

All of that changed about a month ago. The DVD Copy Control Association passed an amendment to the Content Scramble System (CSS)--the copy protection used on commercial DVDs--specifying a standard for recording electronic downloads to recordable DVD media. The standard, dubbed Qflix, is still in its infancy, but already a movement is afoot to bring this technology to drugstores, and perhaps even to a PC desktop near you.

The P's and Q's of Qflix

Jim Taylor, general manager of Sonic Solutions' advanced technology group and author of DVD Demystified, has been spearheading efforts to get Qflix off the ground. The process of making this standard a reality, he says, began a few years ago.

"Everything is ready to go--all of the licenses are in place, the format specifications are ready to go. The tricky part is that the Content Scramble System in place on movie DVDs was originally designed to prevent its use on recordable media. So we had to do something that reversed the original intent of the CSS format," explains Taylor. The concept of Qflix, he adds, "combines the best of digital delivery with the physical medium [of DVD]."

The amendment enables three distinct, new possibilities for getting content. Imagine downloading a movie or TV show (CSS-protected, of course), and then either playing it on your PC or transferring it to a DVD so you can enjoy it on any DVD player in your home. Or, how about going into a local shop--warehouse club, drugstore, supermarket, or superstore--and ordering a disc from a sales kiosk, much as you might order digital photo prints today? Those are two of the most likely scenarios by which consumers of video content will directly benefit from Qflix.

The third scenario impacts users in another way: You can expect to see more obscure and niche catalog content offered for sale. Because the new rules enable manufacturing on demand, retailers don't have to sit with inventory on hand, but rather can obtain a title quickly whenever someone orders it.

"This new way of distributing content--factory, store, and home--makes it vastly easier for all kinds of new content to become available to the home," says Taylor. "Sports, cooking, home improvement. There are a lot of people out there who would be very interested in content that meets a specific need."

For a more concrete example of how you or I might benefit, look no further than the example of entertainment giant Warner Bros. Jim Wuthrich, senior vice president of digital distribution at Warner Bros., notes that of the company's 6600 films, only 1500 have been released on DVD. At any given moment, only 300 of Warner's 1500 DVD titles may be available on a store shelf.

"For the deeper catalog film, it may not justify space on a store shelf," Wuthrich says. For Warner's massive television library, the story is even more dramatic: Of 50,000 series episodes, only 5000 have been released on DVD.

Wuthrich sees all sorts of possibilities ahead. This technology, he offers, could fuel "mass customization, where you create your own disc of episodes. And then there's catch-up TV--where you can have a DVD burned of the episodes you missed that week while in the drugstore" waiting for a prescription.

According to Adams Media Research, the potential on-demand market will reach $2.5 billion in 2010. Sonic's Taylor estimates that download-to-burn, burn-on-demand, and manufacture-on-demand content could represent up to 20 percent of DVD deliveries within 5 years.

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