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The Phantom Menace

February 22nd, 2006 - 5:17 pm

If you follow tech blogs like Engadget or Slashdot, you probably noticed a blurb about how several movie companies are suing Samsung, over an obscure DVD player that was sold for just a few months in 2004. Like many, many other DVD players, the Samsung DVD-HD841 had a “back door,” or a semi-secret code that could be entered in through the remote control to turn off various copy protection schemes. Disney, Time Warner, Fox, Paramount and Universal have all sued claiming they’ve been damaged by video piracy related to the Samsung players, and are demanding a complete recall of all units in private hands (how the heck they plan to pull that off, I have no idea, and I imagine the plaintiffs don’t, either).

The existence of such a DVD player is nothing new; the age of DVD secret codes goes back at least seven years, to the venerable Apex AD-600A, which caused a huge commotion when its own back door was revealed by USA Today and the Washington Post way back in 1999. The Apex players, which were cheap for the day at $175, flew off the shelves of Circuit City, their only retailer, and hundreds if not thousands made their way to eBay for resale at a hefty profit.

Thing is, all of these players, from the Apex all the way up to the Samsung and beyond, wouldn’t let you do much more than avoid the MPAA’s asinine region coding scheme (meaning you could play DVDs bought anywhere in the world, as opposed to only those from the one region the movie companies think you ought to be able to buy from), or successfully copy a DVD onto videotape, or later onto a set-top DVD recorder. The really funny thing is, not one copy made in that manner would be nearly as high-quality as the exact duplicate anybody can make today with a $40 DVD burner and free, easy-to-find DVD copying software. And region-coding actually affects only a tiny portion of any DVD’s purchasers.

So, what’s the big deal here? Why are all those movie companies suing Samsung over a DVD player that really didn’t do much of note, and at any rate hasn’t been for sale for a year and a half? What the heck are they going to accomplish, beyond sending the Samsung player’s resale value through the roof?

I’m glad you asked.

This lawsuit is not about Samsung. It’s not about the DVD-HD841. It’s not even about DVD players as you and I know them.

It’s a warning. It’s a shot across the bow to Samsung and Apex and Panasonic and Cyberhome and every other hardware manufacturer, great and small, to lock up all those back doors in future products.

The movie companies know that the DVD copying cat is so far out of the bag, its kittens have reached every corner of the Earth. They’ve lost that fight, but they don’t plan to lose it as easily in the new generation of high-definition hardware. They know very well that the guys (and almost all of them are male) who design the hardware and software for Blu-Ray and HD-DVD and every other variant of video technology want to be able to make copies for themselves, the movie studios’ wishes be damned.

That’s what happened with the back doors on all these consumer products–they were put in by engineers who wanted to get around the copying restrictions placed on their hardware. Today, Hollywood is leaning on the bosses of those engineers to stamp out any such shenanigans in future products. They figure if the hardware suits are worried enough about getting sued, they’ll lean on their engineers to only produce products unlikely to draw the fire of Hollywood’s First Lawyer Division.

Will it work? I frankly doubt it. Every engineer alive thinks he’s smarter than any lawyer, and a lot of them are right. But Hollywood is going to do its damnedest to scare them out of proving it.

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