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.

How It Works

To burn your own movies at home, you'll need the right equipment: a new, Qflix-capable DVD burner and Qflix media. Four major drive manufacturers--Philips & Lite-On Digital Solutions, Pioneer, Plextor, and Toshiba Samsung Storage Technology--have announced support for Qflix, as have two heavyweight media manufacturers, Ritek and Verbatim. (Dell has said, too, that it plans to offer drives with Qflix once they're available.)

Sonic provides PC software to manage Qflix content libraries. Called Roxio Venue, the software will be bundled with Qflix drives, and will also be distributed by services that use Qflix, such as the Akimbo and Movielink download services.

Taylor says he expects vendors will charge about $16 for PC viewing rights and DVD burning (the rules involved--for example, the number of copies you can burn--will be the decision of the copyright holder). A typical movie could take an hour or two to download, depending on your connection. Once the download finishes, the title will appear in your Qflix library, and will be available for you to watch on your PC or burn to DVD. The Venue software even has the ability to print labels; the movie or TV download will include artwork, so you can print your own DVD case inserts.

While you may balk at the idea of buying a new DVD burner, you may have no choice, depending on the drive you have today and how things play out.

"The approach of CSS requires a new type of disc that is pre-keyed with a portion of CSS keys, and that disc requires new burners," explains Taylor. "It is technically possible to upgrade existing drives, though; we think it's technically possible to upgrade more than half of the drives out there.

"The trick is getting drive manufacturers to invest in a firmware upgrade for a drive they've already sold. We're working with drive manufacturers to explore this now. We're looking into the possibility of paid upgrades, where a consumer might pay $5 or $10 to get an upgrade."

Qflix discs should be readable by any set-top DVD player: Taylor expects Qflix discs to have around 99 percent compatibility with existing players. Some issues remain with DVD recorders, he says, "because they're smarter about looking at DVDs and figuring out what they are. With improvements to the media, we can achieve improved compatibility, though. We want to try to maximize the disc's reflectivity: The better you can get the reflectivity, the more it looks like a DVD-ROM to the player."

When is Qflix supposed to appear? Drive manufacturers say to look for consumer PC drives with Qflix around the end of the first quarter, or into the second quarter, of 2008. Since the Qflix format is also backed by the DVD Forum, the standards body that oversees the DVD specification, devices and media will be distinguishable from non-Qflix products by their new DVD Download logo, a mutation of the ubiquitous and familiar DVD logo.

Taylor expects trial launches of manufacture-on-demand and retail burning services to occur by the end of this year. Look for Qflix and on-demand activity to heat up in the first half of 2008.

I, for one, will be looking for Qflix. Not only am I intrigued by the possibility of downloading a movie and being able to burn it to disc legitimately, but I'm also personally jazzed by the idea of niche content having a DVD outlet.

Here's why: I'm a gymnastics junkie. Gymnastics gets nowhere near the TV coverage accorded to football or baseball--beyond the Olympics, it's nearly nil. Aside from broadcast TV, coverage is largely limited to video streaming via the Internet, either on NCAA collegiate gymnastics Web sites, on the official USA Gymnastics site, or on the World Championship Sports Network at WCSN.com.

I'd find it pretty cool to be able to log in to WCSN, queue up the 2007 Stuttgart World Championships coverage, and download that coverage to own and watch over and over again at my leisure on my PC or on my TV via a DVD player. My gymnastics enthusiasm, your arachnid enthusiasm--the point is, Qflix on-demand technology has the potential to unleash a lot of specialty content.

I look forward to seeing that potential realized.

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