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Is there trouble ahead for the High Definition Disc?

Posted: 03 Feb 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:HD DVD? high-definition? Blu-ray disc? The High-Definition Disc Consumer Advocacy Alliance? AACS?

By The High-Definition Disc Consumer Advocacy Alliance
Digital TV Designline

In early 2006, two new high-definition (HD) videodisc formats, HD DVD and Blu-ray disc, are expected to begin vying for the attention of consumers in an effort to replace current DVD as the future standard for watching movies at home. While their potential is undeniably exciting, we believe that a marketplace war between two incompatible formats is the worst course of action that Hollywood and the consumer electronics industry could take. A format war will invariably result in consumer confusion and apathy, even among dedicated enthusiasts. It's quite possible that a prolonged format war!particularly one with no clear winner!could squander the potential market for HD movies on disc altogether, both now and in the future.

Furthermore, certain new and consumer-unfriendly features of HD DVD and Blu-ray disc threaten to make them incompatible with many existing HD displays, disallowing fair use by consumers, and undermining consumer investments in both hardware and software. It's worth noting that the HD displays most likely to be affected by compatibility problems are largely owned by the early adopters that HD DVD and Blu-ray disc will need to win over in order to be successful, putting at serious risk the acceptance of either format.

Home theater enthusiasts, consumers at large, retailers, the Hollywood studios and the consumer electronics industry will all suffer as a consequence. The High-Definition Disc Consumer Advocacy Alliance has been organized to help spearhead an effort to bring an awareness of the substantial risks of destructive policies and proposed measures to the motion picture and consumer electronic industries. And to succeed, we very much need your help.

This Is What We Believe
1. Supporters of HD DVD and Blu-ray disc in Hollywood and in the consumer electronics industry must set their differences aside and work to find a compromise for a single, unified HD optical disc format.
2. Any HD format must allow for full-resolution HD video signals to be passed to HD displays as analog component video to ensure that all consumers with existing HD displays, even those that lack digital inputs like high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) or digital visual interface (DVI), can enjoy the best possible video quality.
3. Any copy or content protection scheme employed by a HD format must allow for the fair use of disc content by consumers.
4. Any copy or content protection scheme employed by a HD format that has the ability to disable legally acquired hardware or software must be accompanied by specific guarantees that protect the rights and investments of consumers (such as no-cost disc exchange and hardware restoration programs).
5. Any HD format must allow for backward compatibility with existing optical disc standards (e.g., DVD, audio CD, DVD-audio, SA-CD, etc.).

There's Trouble Ahead
As home theater professionals, journalists, enthusiasts, and advocates, our collective mouths water over the prospect of film on high definition disc. We want this dramatic improvement in home theater presentation to succeed, but we are extremely concerned about how this technology is being brought to market. We perceive existing policies, stubbornness, and proposed draconian copy protection measures as jeopardizing the HD disc's potential success. As DVD evolves from standard-resolution to HD, the home theatre community faces unprecedented challenges. Technological progress is being harmed by the motion picture industry's misguided efforts to prevent what it perceives as vast economic losses due to piracy. And the inability of competing electronic manufacturers to negotiate a compromise that would blend the best technical features of two incompatible formats into a single disc structure threatens a destructive format war.

KEY ISSUES
Issue One: Punishing The Innocent For The Sins Of The Guilty

What's the problem?
The studios want to restrict the resolution of the analog component video outputs on HD disc players to 480p (720 pixels wide by 480 pixels high); this is the same standard-resolution (SD) as found on conventional DVD. This resolution reduction is known as image constraint. HD has much greater detail, more closely reproducing the experience of watching film. The resolution of 1080i/30 or 1080p/60 is 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels high (six times the number of pixels found in SD) and 720p/60 is 1280 pixels wide by 720 pixels high (2.25 times the number of pixels found in SD). So the problem is that displays with only analog component video inputs will not be able to show HD disc program material in full resolution. If implemented, this is a deliberate and premeditated denial of signals required by analog-input-only displays; it is not a consequence of HD technology. That denial is a slap in the face to the millions of enthusiasts who helped make DVD a success and an economic windfall for the film studios. This denial abandons the people who are most likely to purchase new technologies, like HD DVDs.

Who may be affected by image constraint?
Anyone who may have purchased, for the purpose of watching HD content, a front projector, rear projector, direct-view CRT television or monitor or flat panel television equipped only with analog component video inputs.

Is image constraint really a big problem? Why do the studios want to do this?
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has consistently claimed that the film industry is losing $3.5 billion each year in lost sales as a direct result of piracy. The nature of the piracy is not completely clear. For some time, the film industry has cited file sharing as their greatest threat and has taken legal action against both Websites that facilitate illegal sharing of copyrighted material and individuals who may have shared or accumulated a library of films illegally. We applaud law enforcement's efforts to stop the manufacture and sale of pirated discs. We applaud the new technologies that can detect camcorders in motion picture theatres. We encourage the studios to work with Congress to seek sanctions against countries where piracy is rampant. The alliance fully supports all those measures; we believe that punishing the guilty is the only rational approach. But in a New York Times story published in January, the MPAA was reported to have said that most of those losses are from the illegal sales of VCD's in Asia. How the economies of Asian countries, where such piracy is common, could support additional sales of $3.5 billion (or a substantial fraction) is unclear. The MPAA claims that analog video is the prime delivery mode of signals when illegal copies are created or mastered.

So is blocking HD on analog video going to stop piracy?
Of course not. If a professional pirate wanted to gain access to HD video in analog form, it would be a trivial technical project to tap the red, blue, green, horizontal sync, and vertical sync signals from within a high-quality HD-ready CRT display that is equipped with an HDCP-compliant HDMI or DVI input. A little gain manipulation, level shifting, reverse gamma correction, conversion of horizontal and vertical ramps to suitable pulses and the job is done.

What is the alliance's position on full-resolution analog component video being made available on HD disc players?
We do not support the denial of full-resolution video to owners of displays equipped only with analog component video inputs. Such display owners made their investments in the good faith expectation that their displays would function fully for all HD sources until the displays reached the end of their economic lifetimes. Denying full resolution analog component video signals from HD DVD players to those owners is unacceptable. Any HD format must allow for full-resolution HD video signals to be passed to HD displays as analog component video to ensure that all consumers with existing HD displays, even those that lack digital inputs (like HDMI or DVI), can enjoy the best possible video quality.

Okay, I'm affected; I own an early HD display. What are my options?
To enjoy your favorite films in HD from disc, the motion picture industry would prefer that you throw away your expensive and fully functional display and buy a new one equipped with an HDCP-compliant HDMI connection. High-bandwidth digital content protection (HDCP) is a data encryption standard and HDMI is a digital interface standard. An alternative is to watch HD content in standard-resolution until your existing display reaches the end of its economic lifetime, and then buy a new conforming display. Or a third option is joining our effort to motivate the film industry to abandon the policy of punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty.

Issue Two: Transforming HD Discs Into Coasters And HD Disc Players Into Boat Anchors
What's the problem?
There are two related problems: one for the discs and the other for the players.

Both HD DVD and Blu-ray disc have declared support for the Advanced Access Content System (AACS). Blu-ray disc has layered two additional components, BD+ and ROM Mark on top of AACS. AACS has within its feature set the ability to revoke a title!rendering it unplayable!that has been compromised and has become vulnerable to illegal reproduction or duplication. Simply put, this is accomplished by revoking the disc's encryption key. The most current list of revoked keys is transmitted to players on newly released HD discs. Once a HD player reads the latest list of revoked keys, the player will simply refuse to play those titles. So after you spend your hard-earned cash on a film on HD disc, the studio can disable it at any time, voiding your purchase. You bought the disc expecting it to play indefinitely, but it suddenly turns into an expensive rental. So if a title is compromised by a pirate!professional or otherwise!the studios can render millions of $30 HD discs useless. Once again, this has the potential for punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty.

The hardware problem is very similar to the disc revocation issue, except it affects players instead of discs. Also within the AACS feature set is the ability to revoke a player. The mechanism is essentially identical to revoking a title; the player's encryption key is placed on a revoked list and transmitted to players on newly released discs. So if a player's firmware is changed to make it do something it's not supposed to do, like disabling HDCP, every single player of that manufacture and model number could find itself on the revoked list. That player would then be unable to play all HD discs.

Who is affected?
Software: Any consumer who has purchased a HD disc to play at home, and any store or service that may have purchased dozens of copies of a title to rent.

Hardware: If you happen to be one of the unfortunate owners of a make and model that had been compromised, your brand new $1,000 HD disc player will become an expensive boat anchor.

These are additional examples of the studios' willingness to punish the innocent for the sins of the guilty.

What is the alliance's position on revocation schemes?
What is missing from such schemes is a public statement from the studios!a guarantee!that if it becomes necessary to revoke a title or a player, there will be a mechanism in place to replace the revoked disc (with what is assumed to be a new key) or replace that player's firmware and key(s) at no cost to the user. Not providing that assurance is unacceptable. Any copy or content protection scheme employed by a HD format that has the ability to disable legally acquired hardware or software must be accompanied by specific guarantees that protect the rights and investments of consumers (such as no-cost disc exchange and hardware restoration programs).

Issue Three: The Collateral Damage Of A Format War
What's the problem?
Despite efforts made by the prime advocates of the two competing HD disc formats!HD DVD and Blu-ray disc!talks to negotiate a compromise for a single, unified format for HD have collapsed. Bringing both formats to market will force enthusiasts to invest in two expensive players instead of one and will cause considerable confusion in the minds of consumers. Both or either of these consequences could have a severe impact in the marketplace: apathy.

Why are the electronic manufacturers being so stubborn?
As DVD was being prepared for market, there was a similar battle to establish that format's standards. Only a last minute effort behind the scenes structured a compromise that yielded a single format. And after a brief skirmish with the ill-conceived DIVX disc, DVD became the single most successful video format in the history of consumer electronics. Very frequently, DVD sales now exceed box office, which has made DVD a vital profit center for the studios. And it's the outstanding success of DVD that may be driving the manufacturers' unwillingness to compromise. With billions of dollars in technical royalties at stake, neither side seems willing to budge.

Why is this a problem?
If apathy causes sales to remain far below expectations, HD on optical disc may fail in the marketplace, and the home theatre enthusiast, the consumer electronics industry, and the motion picture industry will all suffer as a consequence.

Why aren't the studios applying pressure on the electronics manufacturers to compromise?
They are. Studios declared for HD DVD have announced a serious pullback, either postponing their releases until 2006 or scaling back the number of releases for 2005. Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment was to have released twenty HD DVD titles by the end of the year; they announced that they would postpone product releases until 2006. Warner Home Video has also backpedaled, implying that it may not release product by the end of the year. Warner Home Video's President, Jim Cardwell, was reported as commenting that Warner would rather work with all parties to unify the format. Only Universal Studios Home Entertainment remained committed to releasing films on HD DVD before 2006, but its originally planned release of sixteen titles was cut back to an even dozen. Perhaps as a consequence, Toshiba announced that it is postponing release of hardware beyond 2005, negating the marketing lead it would have held against Blu-ray disc, which isn't expected until the spring of 2006. Then, in rather quick succession, both Paramount and Warner announced that they would release content on both HD DVD and Blu-ray disc. Only Universal remains silent on supporting Blu-ray disc. Regardless of this substantial visible pressure, and whatever may be going on behind the scenes, there is still no indication that unification might be possible.

What is the alliance's position on the format war?
A format war is highly undesirable, and we urge the parties to more fully appreciate the risks. In a format war, we can all lose. The responsible parties must compromise and unify the format, as they did just prior to the introduction of DVD. Supporters of HD DVD and Blu-ray disc in Hollywood and in the consumer electronics industry must set their differences aside and work to find a compromise for a single, unified HD optical disc format.

Issue Four: Content Behind Locked Doors
What's the problem?
During the famous Betamax case, in which the film studios claimed that videocassettes would destroy the motion picture industry, the courts found for the defendants and established the concept of fair use. Consumers would, among other things, be able to time-shift copyrighted material. In our digital age, when it's possible to make perfect digital copies of digital source material, fair use becomes a little more problematical, and the studios want to reverse fair use rights, potentially making completely inaccessible their high definition content.

Who is affected?
A legitimate rationale for making an HD copy of a film released on HD optical disc is difficult to imagine. The likelihood of a disc failing is vanishingly small, and the cost of creating a backup copy of every disc in one's collection far exceeds the cost of replacing the rare failed disc. So the strong implication is that copies are being made to give to a friend or sell!both rightfully illegal. But, home electronics is moving toward media distribution systems in which a library of films may be transferred to a vast hard disc server capable of distributing program material all over a consumer's home. Should HD discs prevent such utilization, the utility and convenience of such systems will be harmed.

What is the alliance's position on fair use?
Congress has already been lobbied by the film industry to enact legislation that adversely affects consumers' fair use. We believe that the motion picture studios should not revoke the rights granted by the courts to honest citizens. Any copy or content protection scheme employed by a HD format must allow for the fair use of disc content by consumers.

Issue Five: Existing Collections
What's the problem?
While it may be profitable for consumer electronics manufacturers to sell consumers a player for every possible kind of optical disc, consumers would prefer to buy and use just one. This issue refers to backward compatibility with existing formats for audio on CD and both video and HD audio on DVD. One player to serve all is the ideal. Requiring more than one player causes an unnecessary financial burden on the consumer, and reduces the desirability of HD disc players in the marketplace.

Who is affected?
Anyone who has accumulated a collection of entertainment on various optical disc formats and wishes to continue to enjoy that collection. This issue affects in particular those who have integrated their audio and home theatre systems into one.

What is the alliance's position on compatibility with existing formats?
Any HD format must allow for backward compatibility with existing optical disc standards (e.g., DVD, audio CD, DVD-audio, SA-CD, etc.).

What's The Potential Fallout?
Any or all of these issues may provoke a public relations nightmare as disgruntled and disaffected consumers scare off potential buyers. Reports of display incompatibility, discs and players failing to operate, and the uncertainties of making a substantial investment in a format that might be doomed in the marketplace may cause the mainstream to stay away. We don't want the promising technology of HD on optical disc to vanish due to film industry and consumer electronics manufacturer stubbornness.

What Does The alliance Propose?
As the Internet community did once before!when the misguided product known as DIVX was foisted upon an unsuspecting public!we propose to band together to send the strongest possible message to the proponents of HD DVD and Blu-ray disc that for either of those products to succeed, changes and assurances need to be made.

For participating media, including magazines and websites, the editorial policy shall be to warn consumers of the conceptual deficiencies of the two formats. We will express our regrets that in all good conscience, we cannot recommend buying any format until these issues are resolved. We will cover the introduction of the hardware and software and report what we expect to be wonderful improvements in both video and audio qualities. But with each such article or review, we will continue to remind our readers that there are deficiencies that must be corrected. As for our readers, we strongly encourage you to compose and send polite, business-like letters to the studios and electronics manufacturers to express your concerns.

We also encourage you to bring these problems to the attention of friends and neighbors, as you did when DIVX was being sold. Discourage them from investing in any new format until consumers are no longer treated as criminals.

Wrapping It Up
We continue to be baffled by studio claims that piracy is rampant. National Treasure, which earned $173 million at the domestic box office, enjoyed $198 million dollars in Region 1 DVD sales (based on a CNN report). This example of the popular action/adventure genre is just the kind of film one might expect young file swappers to distribute. It's a fine example of a film that piracy could have adversely affected when the DVD was released. And yet, years after the DVD copy protection system was hacked and tools became readily available to rip and duplicate, the title on DVD became yet another vast financial windfall.

Professional pirates will not be stopped by these harsh draconian measures that are so unfriendly to consumers. Clearly, the draconian measures are aimed at us, innocent bystanders, potential victims of collateral damage in a war against piracy.

Please join us and ask studios and consumer electronics manufacturers to reconsider their approaches. We think we speak for all home theatre enthusiasts when we say that we want HD DVD to succeed no less than those who will profit handsomely from those products. Perhaps even more.

A Call To Action
As concerned media outlets, technology experts, home theater enthusiasts, consumer advocates, and simply supporters of this effort, we cannot in good conscience recommend or endorse HD DVD, Blu-ray disc, or any HD disc format until the issues we've outlined above have been fully addressed.

We invite our readers, fellow media outlets, and all concerned experts, enthusiasts, and advocates to join The High-Definition Disc Consumer Advocacy Alliance in a collective effort to demand HD format unity and rationality. It's well past the time for Hollywood and the consumer electronics industry to exercise a little common sense.

About The HD Disc Consumer Advocacy Alliance
The High-Definition Disc Consumer Advocacy Alliance has been organized to help spearhead an effort to bring an awareness of the substantial risks of destructive policies and proposed measures to the motion picture and consumer electronic industries. And to succeed, we very much need your help.




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