Universal makes U-turn, will not use ICT in first-gen HD DVD

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Universal makes U-turn, will not use ICT in first-gen HD DVD

Universal City (CA)BusinessWeek magazine reports todaythat Universal, the movie production arm of NBC Universal, has reversed its public stand on the use of the image constraint token (ICT) in its forthcoming HD DVD movie titles, at least for now. The software-based flag is a portion of Advanced Access Copy System (AACS) copy protection that would automatically reduce the quality of the image produced by a high-definition video disc player to 540 lines of vertical resolution, when the player is connected to an analog display.

Universal’s change of heart leaves Warner Home Video as the last of the six major studio groups (including 20th Century-Fox, Sony, Disney, and Paramount) not to have voiced an opinion against a technology feature which leaders in AACS say the studios had originally demanded. In a fully digital home entertainment system, authentication devices in components’ firmware, such as Trusted Platform Modules, ensure that signals being sent from a disc player are only received by a digital, “trusted” display or receiver, and not intercepted along the way for possible surreptitious recording. An analog device could theoretically be used in such a manner.

When content on a disc is encoded with the ICT flag turned on, the player is instructed to constrain the image output to 540 lines (still slightly higher than NTSC analog resolution, to match the display capability of TVs produced in Asia), whenever the player does not receive the digital signal from the receiving display. The player therefore assumes it’s sending to an analog device. A recording could still be made, but not at full high-definition quality.

In recent months, video aficionados and other consumers have voiced their opposition to the use of ICT, saying that perhaps a majority of displays sold under the moniker “HDTV,” including first-generation analog sets, would be among those that could only receive 540p signal output from high-def players. 20th Century-Fox spoke out early against ICT, and the other studios have gradually followed. Now, Warner Home Video faces a tough choice, especially as a producer of discs for both formats. As the BusinessWeek article implies, images of Warner movies with the ICT flag turned on, may already have been geared up for production, as the studio is due to release its first three HD DVD titles in April.

In our interview with him last week, Microsoft senior programming manager Richard Doherty, who represents the company to the AACS Licensing Administrator body (and who is not related to the Envisioneering Group analyst of the same name) told TG Daily that while studios are coming out publicly against ICT now, he believes their tactics may change as more high-def videos enter the market. “This flag will be in there essentially forever,” said Doherty, “so as we start to move more and more people to digital connections, you might see more studio interest in constraining the analog image quite some time from now.”

Studios have had to carefully weigh the tradeoffs, Doherty said, between protecting their content on the one hand, and limiting the experience for existing, law-abiding HDTV owners on the other hand. But as more consumers make the plunge to modern digital displays, and the ratio of analog to digital shifts, he said, “that equation may change…Certainly all the companies’ interests are protected by protecting the content adequately, and everything is a balance between business interests and the burden of content protection on users. So all of those tradeoffs are certainly looked at very closely.”

One possibility that studios may be considering, at least for the near term, is that during the initial run of high-def movies, as the number of players in use is relatively low, the maximum damage that could be caused by piracy is more limited.

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