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Fire In the 'Analog Hole’

Television programmers are careful to guard their video content, but they are now seeing it literally disappear into a hole created by a flaw in older analog technology — only to reappear as illegal video distributed by Internet pirates.

The issue has become so troublesome that U.S. programmers and content providers have turned to Congress for relief through new legislation, but they face opposition from a cadre of consumer-electronics manufacturers.

The problem, dubbed the analog hole, arises when video programming flows over an analog connection between a digital set-top box and a device, such as an older TV or DVD recorder.

DIGITAL COPYING

If it is analog video, it has no copy protection to start with, and if it is digital content it loses any of the important copy-protection tags the programmer or cable network may have attached. Using analog input/output connections, enterprising content pirates can save the TV video to a DVD or video hard drive, creating a perfect digital copy without any distribution restrictions. They are then free to distribute that video to the Internet or via illegal DVD sales.

Bob Zitter, executive vice president and technology officer at Home Box Office, said the analog hole is a major problem for the premium TV network because it erodes the resale value of its most valuable original content. He argues that every example of piracy — every scene from The Sopranos appearing on community Web sites such as YouTube (www.youtube.com) — can be traced to the analog hole.

“If you go onto the Internet today and look for The Sopranos or Entourage, you will find it, and the way it has gotten there is someone has taken it out of the analog output,” he said. “They’ve made a recording and distributed it on the Internet — which they could not do if they took it out of the digital output.”

HBO’S SOLUTION

In response, for the past two years HBO has been backing a technology called Copy Generation Management System for Analog (CGMS-A), and it is backing a House bill to require consumer-electronics manufacturers to build CGMS-A into their media devices.

CGMS-A essentially uses the vertical blanking interval — a video subchannel now used to deliver closed-caption text — to send electronic flags to electronic devices such as set-top boxes and TV sets. Set by the content provider, the flags tell the device whether or not content can be recorded or transferred to another device.

Major electronics providers including Sony Corp., Toshiba America Consumer Products LLC, Royal Philips Electronics, Motorola Inc. and Scientific Atlanta have built CGSM-A into their products. But other manufacturers haven’t incorporated it, and Zitter argues that unless all electronics manufacturers are required to do so, consumers may not see a lot of choice in content coming their way over analog outputs.

“Let’s say our affiliates come to us and they want to participate in the home-video business by allowing customers to burn DVDs in their home,” Zitter said. “If the analog hole still exists, and we’re not doing anything to start closing it, we’re not going to be in a position to create more choices for consumers and new business models.”

All of Scientific Atlanta’s cable set-top box models already support CGSM-A for their analog outputs, according to Bill Wall, Scientific Atlanta Inc.’s technical director for subscriber networks. It’s generally a requirement now among cable operators when placing their set-top box orders, but Wall stresses that the technology is not a surefire patch to the analog hole.

“As far as that plugging the analog hole, I think of it more as something that keeps honest people honest,” Wall said. “But if a pirate is coming along and he builds a non-compliant device to copy the material, then it certainly can be done.”

And while Scientific Atlanta boxes do comply with the copy-protection rules supplied by CGSM-A, devices that hook up to them may be a different matter.

If the TV set linked to an SA box doesn’t recognize CGSM-A, the copy protection won’t flow through and the programming will therefore be vulnerable.

Wall said the box maker has done some interoperability testing with major TV and electronics manufacturers to make sure the signals are passed through, but “I don’t really know the status of where their products are.”

BILL IS IN THE HOUSE

Given the patchwork of compliance, HBO is backing a bill dubbed The Digital Transition Content Security Act of 2005, which would require device makers to make their products conform to the CGMS-A standard. The bill’s fate has yet to be decided — it has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property, but there has been no action on the legislation as of yet.

“The only way you can get a level playing field is by having some legislation passed, and that legislation won’t stop the consumer from doing anything that they are able to do today,” Zitter said. “It will allow them to do in the analog world everything that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act said was law for the digital world.”

On the flip side, manufacturers including Neuros Technology International LLC have come out against the bill, arguing that their products would be rendered illegal should CGMS-A become a requirement. Neuros, a provider of next-generation digital video recorders that digitally record content from analog sources, has argued the bulk of its customers are not using the DVRs to pirate content.

“Although it is theoretically possible that devices like ours could be used for piracy, the reality is that they present little practical threat since vastly better technologies are already widely used by pirates,” said CEO Joe Born in a letter to the House subcommittee. “These alternate technologies are already outlawed by the [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] and would be made no more illegal and no less used by the proposed legislation.”

MACROVISION OPTION

Nor is CGSM-A the only tool content providers and operators could use to protect analog video. Content-protection provider Macrovision Corp. has come up with a copy-protection scheme that controls analog outputs, and SA boxes support that. Macrovision’s solution scrambles video signals traveling over analog outputs, confusing video recorders with garbled images.

But while the capability is built into SA set-tops, the content providers or cable operators must obtain a license from Macrovision to use it.

“To my knowledge right now, no one has actually taken that license out to do that scrambling,” Wall said. “Certainly, the majority of cable operators today are not asserting the Macrovision protection on the analog outputs.”

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association is taking a neutral stance when it comes to methods for plugging the analog hole.

“Both cable operators and programmers have legitimate concerns with the protection of digital content and the ability to offer innovative services that are not subject to unauthorized copy and distribution,” NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz said. “Therefore, we support the efforts to resolve the many complex issues surrounding the analog hole.”

Options such as Macrovision’s analog-encryption technology could be valuable, but Zitter argues the real answer is requiring digital copyright rules to apply universally.

“The real answer is some targeted legislation that would require that everyone do in the analog word do what the law says they do in the digital world,” Zitter said.