Hollywood bets on biometric DRM + P2P

Thumbs up, or thumbs down?

Exclusive Some of you may recall the quixotic crusade of inventor Gary Brant, who we interviewed last year. Gary proposed integrating biometric DRM into a portable MP3 player, and was unabashed when several hundred Register readers wrote in to say what a bad idea it was. Not one reader, in fact, endorsed the idea.

But Brant's determination may yet win him a place in the mainstream family living room. His latest product is a set top box, that uses broadband and P2P technology to create a 'secure' network. Secured, as you might guess, by biometric DRM.

Brant says that one major Hollywood studio and one of the big four labels are backing the project from his company Veritouch Inc., called MuViBOXX.

Search and BitTorrent-style P2P file sharing are part of the proposition, as Brant explains:

"The appliance lets you search for any movie that, say, George Clooney has appeared in, and download it. You'll have access to more movies than you get at Blockbuster, and you don't even have to walk to the mailbox, like you do with NetFlix".

MuViBOXX uses a watermark identification like Snocap to identify copyright material from uploaded movies of the kids you might want to share with Grandma. Rather than license or partner with Snocap, Veritouch has devised its own.

Brant also said he'd like to see a system based on rewarding P2P uploaders.

"P2P sharers already pay for the electricity and bandwidth," he pointed out, and hinted that Hollywood's rapprochement with BitTorrent creator Bram Cohen may be more than a PR excercise.

"When we last spoke [June 2004] you didn't think this was a problem that could be solved technology. I think there is and it can".

"Once you're connected to the internet you log onto this new P2P network, then at the top of the hierarchy are the big movie networks. It'll then go out to the other content providers as well as the other P2P providers on the network, and they can upload them to you using this secure network," he said.

At its heart, MuViBOXX is a simple Linux router, only with a 500GB hard drive, integrated Ethernet and 802.11b/g/a wireless, a DVD player, and HDTV outputs. It will also make VoIP calls. Linux proved to be the perfect platform for building a lock-down DRM system, said Brant.

Veritouch has been working with the studios on ways to distribute "pre-release" content such as movie rushes and previews for three years now.

What's less clear is who will bear the cost of the box. Brant said that the studios are keen to help, but he really needs a cableco to underwrite what looks like an expensive piece of kit.

The rights question

"I'm walking a high wire," confesses Brandt, when we pressed him about the consequences for fair use. But a problem looms for what we may call the "rights" lobby, which has grown accustomed to arguing the dispute as one of personal freedoms rather than the compensation tiff that it really is.

And it's been looming for a long time - ever since we discussed the lock-down PC for the first time five years ago.

At the time, Richard Stallman, the leading Free Software activisit, put the dilemma like this

"Free software faces two dangers, each worse than the other: ... users will reject GNU/Linux because it doesn't support the central control over access to these data, or that they will reject free versions of GNU/Linux for versions "enhanced" with proprietary software that support it. Either outcome will be a grave loss for our freedom."

When we revisited the issue 18 months later, appropriating the phrase 'The Stuckist Net', it was clear that a significant number of readers would live with archaic PCs that don't play DRM restricted songs or movies - so long as they were kept open. You could call this the Mongolian option.

But give the average household an easy-to-use box next to the TV that provides limitless video on demand, and they don't see any loss of "rights" at all - they see it as saving a trip to Blockbuster in the rain. They see it as more choice than they had before. Any argument based on "digital rights" is going to go down in flames.

The threat to the PC comes from PC manufacturers wanting to access the MuViBOXX network using a standard PC. We know, and the powerful Wintel lobby never ceases to remind us, that the open nature of the PC architecture and the open nature of the internet have given us, respectively, two lousy technologies for distributing content.

Let's keep them that way. ®

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