Perpetual Motion Labs

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Ed Felten compares the movie industry's MovieLabs project to "Perpetual Motion Labs":
Such a ploy might be very effective if it worked. Imagine that you somehow convinced policymakers that the auto industry could make cars that operated with no energy source at all. You could then demand that the auto industry make all sorts of concessions in energy policy, and you could continue to criticize them for foot-dragging no matter how much they did.

If you were using this ploy, the dumbest thing you could do is to set up your own "Perpetual Motion Labs" to develop no-energy-source cars. Your lab would fail, of course, and its failure would demonstrate that your argument was bogus all along. You would only set up the lab if you thought that perpetual-motion cars were pretty easy to build.

Which brings us to the movie industry's announcement, yesterday, that they will set up "MovieLabs", a $30 million research effort to develop effective anti-copying technologies. The only sensible explanation for this move is that Hollywood really believes that there are easily-discovered anti-copying technologies that the technology industry has failed to find.

So Hollywood is still in denial about digital copying.


This is a chance for Hollywood to learn what the rest of us already know — that cheap and easy copying is an unavoidable side-effect of the digital revolution.

It's certainly true that the stopping widespread copying of copyrighted material is an extraordinarily difficult problem, and that the movie and record companies have been worried about it ever since recordable digital media started appearing (remember that the first round of this was about Digital Audio Tape), but that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do about it. There are two basic lines of attack on large-scale digital copying.

  1. Make it hard to extract the media in raw (copyable) form.
  2. Make it hard to transmit the raw media around--or at least easy to prosecute the offenders.

The first line of attack is basically a lost cause and has been ever since media started being released in digital form on CD/DVD. But from the media company's perspective things were pretty much under control before the Internet.1 because there was no good way of moving the bits around. As long as people had to ship actual objects around, it was comparatively straightforward to investigate the crimes and prosecute the offenders using the same techniques you use for counterfeiters, etc.

What's really freaking the media companies out is that the Internet in its current form makes it very difficult to stop people from copying the bits around. But at the moment there are still things that you can do to make that inconvenient. If you look at the list of initial MovieLabs projects, you can see that a lot of them are oriented towards this goal:

  • Ways to jam camcorders being used inside movie theaters, or to project movies with flickering images that are invisible to the eye but will appear on unauthorized video recordings.
  • Network management technologies to detect and block illegal file transfers on campus and business networks.
  • Traffic analysis tools to detect illegal content sharing on peer-to-peer networks.
  • Ways to prevent home and personal digital networks from being tapped into by unauthorized users, while not preventing consumers from sending a movie to more than one TV set without having to pay for it each time.
  • Ways to link senders and receivers of movies transmitted over the Internet to geographic and political territories, to monitor the distribution of movies and prevent the violation of license agreements.

The second, third, and probably the fifth of these projects appear to be aimed at attacking transmission of the bits. Of course, you can't totally stop it, but you can make it a lot more inconvenient, especially if you don't care how much damage you do to the Internet in the process—which it seems likely the media companies don't. The first project is designed to stop a particular form of content extraction: movies that haven't been released on DVD but are available in theaters. The fourth project appears to be aimed at stopping home content extraction, which I agree is a dubious proposition.

Of course, even if the media companies manage to block Internet transmission of content via file sharing networks, it's only a short-term fix. At some point not too far in the future networks and storage will have so much capacity that friend-to-friend transmission of large content libraries will be practical, at which point the game is pretty much over. We're not there yet, though, and it's possible for attempts to block filesharing to screw up the Internet pretty badly in the meantime.

1 Yes, I realize that most media "piracy" happens in the form of pressing new media, not Internet sharing, but that's not as scary for three reasons (1) It's easier to investigate. (2) It happens mostly in markets where the media companies wouldn't sell much content anyway (keyword: market segmentation) (3) It's still clearly a commercial transaction so it doesn't run the risk that customers start thinking that all of this content should just be free.

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You forgot the third option: Roll out devices that can only play properly licensed content, and reject unmarked content. This is probably the most feasible approach, and the one that really hurts those who want to create free content.

I waffled on whether to put that on my list but finally decided that (technically speaking) it was a subset of (1), since it makes it hard to extract content to replay on other units.... Probably a writing mistake in retrospect.

DAT was not the first digital recording mechanism people worried about. Very interesting podcast here . . .

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