Making Movies Mobile

With the curtain set to go up on the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, all eyes are expected to be sporting 3-D glasses as major TV set makers and other technology providers rush to bring stereoscopic images into the living room. But there’s other potential news stirring that could that could end up having a bigger near-term impact.

On Monday, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), announced some significant developments in its long quest to achieve practical interoperability among digital devices and files across multiple delivery platforms and using multiple DRM systems — so-called “buy once, play anywhere” capability. Among the announcements was the adoption of a common file format, support for multiple DRMs and, most significantly, the addition of 21 new members to the coalition, including such key players as Adobe, Netflix, CableLabs and DivX.

DECE started out with an advantage over similar, technology-driven efforts at interoperability in that it was spearheaded by content owner, Sony Pictures, and included support from five of the six major Hollywood studios. But missed deadlines and reports of tension within the group led many in the industry to write off the effort.

Monday’s announcement, however, is significant. With Adobe in the mix, the developers of both major video streaming platforms, Flash and Silverlight, are now on board (Microsoft was a founding member of DECE). And with Intel already a member, Adobe’s involvement also promises to get DECE-enabled Flash support embedded in a wide variety of CE devices.

Two key players that have not joined DECE are, of course, Disney and Apple. But the two are believed to be working together on their own cross-platform delivery system called KeyChest, which was first announced in October. Disney is expected to offer a peek at the system at CES.

More interoperability news may come later in January, when the DVD Copy Control Association, the licensing agency for the CSS copy protection system used on DVDs, is slated to hold its next meeting in Los Angeles. One of the topics expected to be discussed is a proposal by the studios to allow rights owners to make bilateral deals with device makers to allow DVD movies to be ripped to portable devices and PCs without requiring a separate download, as long as the copies remain protected by DRM.

The proposal is similar to a so-called managed-copy plan put forth by Apple nearly four years ago, which was rejected by the studios at the time.

But times and circumstances change, and according to sources familiar with the latest proposal, the studios now seem willing to consider one-off deals with individual device makers, rather than the comprehensive deal they sought, while dropping demands for an upgrade of CSS. According to some reports, Disney is close to announcing a system to provide a code to DVD buyers that will let them rip the movie to certain portable devices, presumably those made by Apple (whose CEO, Steve Jobs, is Disney’s largest individual shareholder), although those reports could not be confirmed.

The lack of interoperability and content portability has been a major stumbling block to efforts to build a robust digital business for movies (not to mention a spur to DRM hacking). Any system of agreement that makes it easier for consumers to move digital video files from one device to another, or from a disc to a hard drive, without resorting to piracy, can’t come soon enough for Hollywood.

According to a report out Monday from leading industry analysts Adams Media Research, consumer purchases of DVDs last year plunged 13 percent, to $8.73  billion, while non-cable VOD sales totaled less than $300 million (the VOD figures include revenue from streaming services such as Netflix).

Even taken together, the interoperability developments may not be enough to break through the CES noise, but they’re welcome nonetheless.

Question of the week

Would the ability to rip DVDs legally lead you to buy more DVDs?