The battle to protect digital entertainment content is being fought on new fronts, as content owners seek to guard against music, movie, and now TV piracy.

As we move to a world where all entertainment is delivered digitally, the battle over copyright protection is turning into a full-blown war. And consumer rights may end up being the biggest casualty as media companies hunker down and try to redefine what users can and can’t do with the content they’ve paid for and the hardware they own.

From Apple’s iTunes and Real Networks’ Rhapsody music network to movie rental sites like CinemaNow and Starz’ Vongo, legitimate digital media services are exploding. But each additional option brings a new battle, new restrictions, and even new dangers for unsuspecting users.

Copy protection included in Sony BMG audio CDs allowed virus writers to co-opt the system and sneak onto users’ PCs. Satellite and HD Radio, which promise higher-quality audio and more content, may become difficult for listeners to record if the music industry has its way. And TV fans are finding that cable stations are limiting their ability to time-shift shows; pending federal legislation may curtail their rights even more.

Worse, technology firms, who once struck a balance between the rights of content owners and the rights of users, have sided more and more with Hollywood as they strive to secure the content they believe will help sell their products.

Copyrights and wrongs

Peer-to-peer file sharing remains the bogeyman, driving entertainment companies toward ever-increasing control over content. Despite the US Supreme Court decision holding Grokster liable for the actions of its copyright-defying users, and despite more than 13,000 lawsuits filed by the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, file swapping is still growing. According to P-to-P research site Big Champagne, some 6.5 million US users share files at any one time – up more than 30 per cent from the year before.

Media companies have responded in two ways. Using their influence in Washington, they’ve pushed for laws friendlier to the rights of content owners. At the same time, Hollywood has threatened to withhold access to its libraries unless electronics manufacturers build devices with sufficient copy protection.

This is not the way the copyright process was supposed to work, according to Jessica Litman, author of the book Digital Copyright.

“Copyright law was intended to protect reading, viewing, and listening as much as creating and distributing,” says Litman, a professor of copyright law at Wayne State University Law School. “Now it takes what people previously saw as their rights and treats them as loopholes the copyright owners will close, if they can.”

Library fine

Take books, for example. You can read a book anywhere you want, skip chapters at will, give the book away or sell it, quote portions of it on your blog, or scan it into your PC and print out a copy. And when the book eventually becomes part of the public domain, you can do anything you please with it – including printing copies and selling them at a profit.

Buy an electronic book, however, and your rights start to wither. You’re now subject to the terms of an end-user license agreement. Depending on the EULA, you may be able to read the book on only a limited number of machines (usually just one), and you probably won’t be allowed to sell it, lend it, or make backup copies.

As you move up the content spectrum to digital music, movies, radio, and TV, the rules can be just as restrictive.

“[Hollywood’s] model is to make experiencing copyrighted material – reading a book, listening to music, or watching a movie – legally like going to a movie theatre,” Litman says. They want you to buy a ticket, watch ads, eat only their food, leave when they want you to, and pay for it all again each time you do it, she says.

Brad Hunt, senior vice president and chief technology officer for the MPAA, disagrees, arguing that content owners are seeking ways to offer users more options than they have with today’s media. “Instead of saying ‘here’s the movie locked to a piece of plastic, take it or leave it,’ content owners may make other rights available to you to do more with it,” he explains.

Discord

The primary battleground for digital content has long been music. To combat widespread file swapping, the record industry has attempted both copy protection for CDs – most notoriously in the form of Sony BMG’s XCP rootkit – and digital rights management schemes for online music. Each has made life more difficult for legal purchasers of music. But now even digital TV is being targeted, and recent developments in the US could point to what’s in store.

The battle over rights in the digital TV arena in the US is already well under way. By March 1, 2007, according to Federal Communications Commission rules, all new TV devices (tuners, VCRs, DVRs, and set-top boxes) for sale in the United States must be capable of receiving digital TV signals.

For the past few years, media conglomerates have been scrambling to keep their expensively produced, highly profitable digital content from drifting all over the Net. But the protections they’ve devised may keep viewers from doing things they are accustomed to doing – such as recording, time-shifting, and sharing shows.

In 2003, the FCC ruled that over-the-air digital TV shows must carry an 8-bit “flag” that broadcasters could use to limit how viewers recorded such programs; all TV gear would have had to recognize this flag. Last May, a federal court struck down the broadcast flag, ruling that the FCC had exceeded its authority. Flag supporters have tried to persuade Congress to authorize the flag; that has yet to happen.

The MPAA’s Hunt says such controls are necessary. “If content owners have no assurance there will be some form of protection from redistributing digital TV, that high-value content normally provided to broadcasters would move into the pay-TV world,” he says. That could mean networks like ABC and NBC might no longer get the rights to show Star Wars or Harry Potter movies, for example.

TiVo tightrope

Meanwhile, TiVo owners recently got a taste of what life under such a flag might be like. Last September the popular DVR service changed how it responded to the Macrovision copy protection built into pay-per-view and video-on-demand content. For the first time, content owners could prevent viewers from recording PPV and VOD shows on a DVR. They could also require deletion of shows from the recorder after a certain period. TiVo already prevented viewers from burning protected content to DVDs or using the TiVoToGo service to transfer it to a PC.

Fred von Lohman, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, says that this change is a classic case of content owners taking away features consumers have paid for.

“Two years ago the TiVo you bought did one thing, and now suddenly it does something different,” he says. “Despite the fact we’re buying more media than ever before, products are treating us more and more like pirates each day.”

But TiVo VP of product marketing Jim Denney says the changes have had little impact on the vast majority of TiVo users.

More restrictions may be on the way for home recording. At press time, sponsors had just introduced the Digital Content Security Act (HR 4569) in the House. This bill would close the “analog hole” by requiring devices that allow users to make digital copies from analog sources to employ copy protection technology. If the analog hole were closed, protected shows could carry signals that prevented them from being copied by any device at all, or could limit copies and prohibit them from being digitally redistributed, or could restrict viewers’ time-shifting abilities to within 90 minutes after a broadcast.

Next-generation home recording via high-capacity blue-laser DVD technology promises a little more freedom but also additional restrictions. Both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs (the two major blue-laser DVD formats) will carry a digital watermark that will let players identify illegally copied discs and prevent playback of the content. Backers of both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats have announced their support for “mandatory managed copies,” which will allow home users to make a single copy of their high-definition discs and share them across a home network – something that consumers can’t legally do with today’s commercial DVDs.

Playing fair

Only the most rabid BitTorrent users would want to live in a world where copyrights don’t exist, but nobody wants one side to call all the shots either.

“Hollywood is speaking with one voice, holding the reins on the one thing everyone needs: content,” says EFF’s von Lohman. “In that kind of environment, consumers are going to get screwed.”

But Marcus Matthias, a product manager in Microsoft’s Digital Media Division says that it’s in everyone’s best interest to find solutions that media firms and users can live with. “At the end of the day, if consumers don’t see a value proposition for next-generation content, there are a lot of very big companies who’ve made some very big bets that aren’t going to pan out,” he notes.

As happened with the backlash against Sony BMG’s copy protection technology, users must reject bad DRM schemes--not because they violate computer security, but because they punish the people who actually paid for the digital content, say consumer advocates.

“One approach [to piracy] is to make it as hard as possible to create and share illegal copies of digital content,” writes Navio’s Roever in his corporate blog. “Another is to make it as attractive and easy as possible to buy digital content. The more successful the industry becomes at achieving the latter, the less it will need to rely on the former.”