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Counterproductive Content Protection
Posted by John Edwards | | US
January 30, 2006 5:58 PM ET
The Sensenbrenner/Conyers "analog hole bill" (though ripe with possibilities for awkward nicknames) is a poorly considered idea that could actually prove counterproductive for organizations that seek to protect their audio/video content assets.

Formally known as the Digital Transition Content Security Act of 2005, the measure — touted as a way to "preserve digital content security measures" — would require nearly all analog video devices to implement CGMS-A and VEIL technologies to prevent consumers from copying analog content to digital video devices. I'll spare you the details of the acronyms; suffice it to say that CGMS-A is a relatively mainstream content-protection mechanism, but VEIL is both new and obscure.

Ed Felten, the Princeton professor who has become moderately well-known by fighting for the rights of content users, recently contacted VCP, the St. Louis-based company behind VEIL, to find out exactly how the technology works. VCP replied that they will tell Felton the secrets behind the product's decoder (which makes the content accessible to users) only if he hands over $10,000 and signs a non-disclosure agreement. Worse yet, Felton discovered, the company refuses to explain the working of the encoder (which protects the content in the first place) under any terms.

Congress should flush this bill. There's no doubt that the measure is bad for businesses that need to safeguard their audio/video content; it would require them to invest heavily in a risky, new, proprietary technology that may or may not prove to be impervious to hackers. For that matter, how is the public supposed to judge the bill's value, and its potential to infringe on their fair-use rights, without access to the underlying technology? Indeed, how much information do the members of Congress and their staffers have about VEIL, and is it enough to make an informed decision?

It's hard not to see the hand of Hollywood behind this measure. The studios, if they could, would no doubt charge a per-use fee on people who daydream movie scenes in their heads. Basing content protection on a secret technology, however, is not only unfair, it's counterproductive to the goal of combating content piracy.
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