- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The organization behind the Academy Awards is eyeing technology to prevent a sequel to last year’s embarrassing attempt to protect films, in which they did not distribute them to Oscar voters at all.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has endorsed a plan to distribute about 6,000 special digital video disc players to members. Encrypted discs, known as “screeners,” would be earmarked for a specific academy voter and would play only on that person’s machine.

“It’s extremely impressive,” said Frank Pierson, president of the academy. “It certainly looked foolproof to us.”

The player also would print an invisible watermark on the disc each time it is viewed. In addition, if someone uses a camcorder to tape the movie as it is playing on a monitor, that image would contain information about the person assigned the machine.

Several studios said they were considering participating in the effort, but none has made a formal commitment.

Similar watermarking technology used last year on lower-quality videocassettes helped authorities track and convict an Illinois man who had obtained screeners from an academy member and made hundreds of illegal copies for sale.

The success of that effort led Cinea Inc., a division of Dolby Laboratories, to approach the academy about a combination of encryption and watermarking so studios could distribute screeners on DVDs.

The Motion Picture Association of America, which represents studios, last year banned the distribution of screener DVDs and videotapes over concerns about bootlegging. Many of the screener copies are of films that are in movie theaters or are still unreleased.

The studios later changed the policy to allow the shipment of encoded videocassettes to Academy Award voters only. A federal judge, however, granted a temporary injunction lifting the screener ban in a lawsuit brought by independent production companies, which argued the policy put them at a disadvantage for awards.

Cinea will invest several million dollars to make and distribute the DVD players to academy members and perhaps movie critics and other awards groups.

“We feel pretty good about the investment and putting the money upfront because we’ve gotten a lot of positive reinforcement for this idea,” said Laurence Roth, Cinea vice president and co-founder.

Cinea executives said that with enough time and money, a hacker eventually could circumvent the encryption technology hard-wired in a single DVD player, but the watermarking will help authorities track down that player.

The discs, by themselves, cannot be hacked, Mr. Roth said.

Cinea is gambling that the high-profile use of its system will persuade the industry to adopt it more widely to protect films as they pass through post-production facilities — another source of bootlegged copies — as well as “digital dailies” — the snippets of film sent, often on DVD, from a film’s shooting location to studio executives or a film’s marketing partners.

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