DVD antitheft chips

| Comments (6) | DRM
OK, this is a clever countermeasure to DVD theft:
A chip smaller than the head of a pin is placed onto a DVD along with a thin coating that blocks a DVD player from reading critical information on the disc. At the register, the chip is activated and sends an electrical pulse through the coating, turning it clear and making the disc playable.

The radio frequency identification chip is made by NXP Semiconductors, based in the Netherlands, and the Radio Frequency Activation technology comes from Kestrel Wireless Inc., based in Emeryville.

Some obvious questions:

  • What's the incremental cost of production of a DVD with this chip in it? DVDs are incredibly cheap to manufacture, so even a few pennies are a significant increase in costs. And remember that while its the retailers who benefit from this technology it's the manufacturers who have to put it in. Will the retailers be willing to have the cost passed on to them?
  • There's a pretty substantial collective action problem. The retailers need to put the activators in, but it's of no value unless a substantial number of disks have it—and at least initially the clerks will forget to activate the disks when most don't need it and this means unhappy customers with broken disks. Similarly, the manufacturers won't put it in unless they see an advantage, which depends on the retailers activating it.
  • Is it really that hard to build or steal an activating unit? Typically ths stuff isn't cryptographically strong, it just relies on the obscurity of the design of the RFID activators. If so, you should expect to see bootleg activators. Obviously, a bootleg activator isn't useful for single-unit theft, but if you operate a DVD theft ring you can presumably afford one. Heck, can you just scrape off the coating with an x-acto knife?

Not saying it's not clever, though.


The final problem: Theft of DVDs is commonly not for viewing, but for returning for money (at least the knid that stores REALLY worry about). Since this works without opening the package, you also need to verify that

a: The DVD hasn't been activated

b: That it wasn't a mistake.

When the person tries to return the DVD associated with a receipt they grabbed out of the trash.

Apart from clerks forgetting, what about the issue of equipment malfunctions or other causes of failed activation. The activation process would have to provide clear verification — it wouldn't take many customers getting home to find that the product doesn't work, before there was a rebellion.

On the other hand, I think we, collectively, are getting used to technological annoyances that we would never accept before, and that we, collectively (and especially younger people), accept some of these glitches without much complaint.

I'm not sure that's a good thing.

I don't think it's very clever. I can imagine a number of problems with the technology:

* Will it lower the reliability of the DVD?
* How many DVD's will leave the shop without activation ?

I might be looking for conspiracies, but I am quite sure they have a different reason for wanting this technology in DVD's. Self destructing DVD disks.

Imagine disks that are physically destroyed after 3 days. Or if you try to read it without an "approved" reader. I think that is the kind of thing that is attracting money to this technology. Hardware DRM for DVD (and other optical disks) has been a holy grail for a while now.

And this means that the manufacturer has to keep two SKUs (one for retail who have the system, one for all others) and must be very careful not to send the wrong package (which probably looks like the other one) to the wrong recipient.

Prediction: if this gets deployed (5 to 1 against), it will work poorly very publicly on one of the first disks it is used on (10 to 1 in favor).

Imagine disks that are physically destroyed after 3 days.

This technology exists, and has already been test-marketed in Flexplay ez-D DVDs. (They were sold at 7-Elevens and grocery stores in Austin and Peoria for $6 to $7. No one bought them.)

Proving once more an Xacto knife is the ultimate tool - better than even emacs.

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