4K confusion

Even by the standards of the Hollywood studios, 20th Century-Fox has always been a stickler for copy protection. It was never happy with the CSS copy-protection system used on DVDs and opposed rolling out the format until more secure encryption technology became available. When CSS was quickly cracked Fox blamed Warner Bros. and the then-head of its home video division, Warrner Lieberfarb, of “railroading” the industry into an early launch and has never really gotten over the grudge.

When the industry began work on an HD DVD standard, Fox was again dissatisfied with the AACS system adopted by the rest of the industry, fearing it would again prove inadequate. In the contest for studio loyalty that developed between rival HD hardware camps — the Toshiba-led HD-DVD camp and the Sony-led Blu-ray Disc group — Fox threw its lot in with Blu-ray largely because the Blu-ray group agreed to add support for the additional layer of encryption — what became known as BD+ — that Fox was insisting on. Today, Fox is the only studio that regularly uses BD+ on its Blu-ray releases.

With the industry now preparing to make the leap from HD to 4K Ultra-HD a pair of announcements this week at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin suggested we could be in for more DRM drama, and once again Fox could be in the middle of things.

First came word that Samsung had signed on as the first hardware partner in the Fox Innovation Lab, an initiative the studio announced last year to focus on long-term technology challenges facing content owners and to promote enhancements to the consumer experience around video. As part of the deal, Fox will make its entire slate of summer releases, including X-Men: Days of Future Past and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes available to Samsung in 4K. Samsung said it would include the films on its UHD Video Pack, a 500 GB media player pre-loaded with 4K content that Samsung sells alongside its UHD TVs. Samsung’s European senior director of sales and marketing, Michael Zoeller, said the Fox titles would also be included in a Samsung 4K download service in the near future.

At the press conference, however, Fox Home Entertainment president Mike Dunn, who has been at the studio since VHS days and is a veteran of the DRM wars, made it clear the decision to work with Samsung on 4K was at least in part DRM-driven.

Part of Fox and Samsung’s focus, Dunn said, will be implementing the flash-memory based DRM system developed by the Secure Content Storage Association, which binds content to a particular flash-based memory device, such as SSD drives, SD cards and thumb drives. The system is considered highly secure because the encryption key used to encrypt the content is generated dynamically at the moment the content is first moved onto the storage device and is based on a pattern of memory elements that is unique to each flash chip. In principle, the file can’t be copied because it can’t be stored on another memory device. If stored on a removable memory device, however, such as an SD card or a thumb drive, the content can be moved securely between devices via sneaker-net.

“We are bringing our super high quality content only to companies like Samsung, that commit to SCSA technology,” Dunn said in Berlin. “That’s a technology that will liberate consumers It helps them to move premium content easily from device to device.

The other major 4K news at IBC came in comments by Victor Matsuda, chairman of the Blu-ray Disc Association. According to Matsuda, 4K Blu-ray discs and players will be hitting stores in time for Christmas 2015.

“One of the advantages Blu-ray and packaged media formats have is having its own, enclosed, stable environment,” Matsuda said. “We don’t have to worry about how many neighbors are trying to stream the same information, how big the pipeline is from the service provider, whether your monthly data plan is going to affected by the 4K products rolling out.”

Matsuda was vague, however, on the subject of copy protection for the new standard, saying only that it will have “updated” digital rights management. Discussions have been underway for months within the AACS Licensing Authority for months about updating AACS for 4K but there has been no public indication as to whether SCSA could also play a role. Fox has been very active in those discussions within AACS, but at IBC Dunn seemed to be saying that SCSA encryption is essential to Fox making its content available on any non-streaming platform.

Complicating matters further is the fact that SCSA is not the only game in town for copy protection on removable media. A separate system, called SeeQVault and based on the same properties of flash memory, is strongly backed by Sony, along with Toshiba, Panasonic and, oddly enough, Samsung. Sony Pictures, in fact, is already making downloadable 4K content available on SeeQVault-enabled devices in Japan but has so far said nothing about supporting SCSA.

In short, it’s starting to look like there could be multiple DRM systems in the market for physical media and downloadable 4K content, with different major studios making their content available on some but not others. That could be more than enough to turn consumers off to 4K content in downloadable or physical form.

The winners in that case, will be Netflix, YouTube and other streaming platforms that don’t have to worry about compatibility with permanent storage formats.