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Glass Houses: Want to Fight DVD Piracy? Try Digital Printing
Posted Apr 12, 2004 Print Version     Page 1of 1

With the Academy Awards approaching as I write this, I'm reminded of the "screener" fiasco a few months ago. Alarmed by perceived threats of piracy, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) banned the use of DVD to send out screening copies of films for nomination consideration.

After an uproar from independent studios—who insisted that their films might not get seen without the screeners—the ban was lifted. But the fact that the ban was imposed at all points to a more serious issue: in the rush to slap Band-Aids on piracy hotspots, nobody's looking for more comprehensive solutions. Aren't there technologies that can get to the root of the piracy problem? Absolutely! And it's time for educated replicators to help out studios and music labels that can't get a handle on the problem without causing a major inconvenience for consumers.

At least one manufacturer is on the right track. For this year's Academy Awards, Technicolor produced screeners for select feature film studios, as well as independent feature distributors, using a new security technology. While Technicolor wasn't ready to share details with me just yet, they did say that earlier this year they began developing a new process with "prominent" third-party partners. This security protocol features a forensically trackable watermark. The technology embeds an individually serialized code into the video stream of the content on the VHS tape or DVD. The watermark is said to be nearly undetectable to the naked eye and can aid content owners and distributors by letting them identify the source of the pirated or copied film. According to Technicolor, the technology was used successfully to track a screener released over the Internet in January and led to the arrest of an alleged member of an Internet piracy ring. To enable secure screeners for the European Movie Art and Techniques Academy Award season, Technicolor manufactured Flexplay DVD screeners—which become unreadable 48 hours after the package is opened—for M2K's film Elephant. They were sent to 3,300 Academy members. What a fabulous use for a somewhat questionable format!

While Flexplay won't work as a long-term anti-piracy solution, digital printing can. Two companies, Secure Media and Action Duplication, have purchased digital printing equipment from Switzerland's Auto Tech Digital. While this kind of printing is currently being sold mostly for marketing solutions, its potential for serialization and piracy protection is enormous. Here again, replicators can play key roles in getting the word out. (Action Duplication is a replicator; Secure Media is a DRM encryption provider.)

The benefits of digital printing are said to be multiple. One is the photo-quality image on the disc. Secure Media's Tom Booth, Jr. says the technology offers photo-quality printing of 600dpi, with a 180-line screen. More importantly, with this machine they can customize discs in mass quantities. The replicator can put a different serial number on each disc to make it trackable.

Auto Tech's Dave Maxham says that the process differs in several ways from a digital printing solution already available from Kammann, K 15, which uses electronic delivery and does not require film or plates. The Auto Tech machine prints on a special transfer film which is then coated with an adhesion promoter. The next step is to transfer the image from the film onto a disc. That is done with a heat-activated roller. The heat from the roller does two things. It releases the dry toner from the film and, at the same time, the heat-activated adhesive bonds the toner to the disc. A second later you peel the transfer film away and are left with nothing but the dry toner image and the adhesive promoter which bonds the image to the disc.

It's photographic reproduction, with a much richer quality than offset, Maxham says. Everything in the process is digital. There is no screen-printed white donut like you get with offset. Also, according to Maxham, the process uses no hazardous materials at all.

How much will each disc cost? While the price of offset printing decreases as the disc numbers go up, the cost of digitally printing discs is always the same: about a nickel apiece, according to Auto Tech. At 12,000 discs, offset printing becomes cheaper. But that's without the customization benefits.

The price of the machine also depends on what you want. According to Auto Tech, you can spend anywhere from $200,000 to $2 million. If you buy the $1.1 million printer, it will cost the same as a high-end offset printer, but will out-produce an offset machine by 40-50 percent, he says. Auto Tech's digital printer can produce as many as 300,000 discs per day. That output might be slightly overstated, according to industry sources; Booth estimates capacity at 150,000 discs per day.

Another digital-printing plus for the replicator is that discs with this kind of printing are no longer cheap commodities. So while a manufacturer can help a studio combat piracy, they can also charge more for a disc in a market that has currently little or no profit margin. (With a little luck, some of the replication business may not go to Asia.) The only problem with digital printing is that there aren't many machines available, but Auto Tech says they're building more. New machines were also being delivered to Chicago and California at press time.

The logic is simple: Replicators are looking for opportunities. Content providers are looking for security. Digital printing marries the two. Do replicators take the initiative, or sit back and watch stop-gap approaches fail while sitting on valid alternatives?

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