New Digital Movies Not Pirate-Proof

In an effort to beat a possible Napster-for-movies to the punch, five major Hollywood studios have announced plans to distribute movies on demand over the Internet. But according to security experts, the new service still will be vulnerable to cyberpirates.

Announced Thursday, the as-yet-unnamed distribution service partners Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Viacom's Paramount Pictures, Sony's Sony Pictures Entertainment, Vivendi Universal's Universal Studios, and AOL Time Warner's Warner Brothers.

The service, which will serve as a direct gateway between the five studios and consumers, will feature recently released films as well as older movies. For a fee of around $3.99 — similar to that charged by cable pay-per-view services — consumers will be able to download a digitally compressed film file and store it on their hard drive for up to 30 days. Once a downloaded file is opened, consumers will have 24 hours to view it.

The studios involved in the venture said they believe encryption technology currently available will be strong enough to prevent piracy in most cases.

"We believe human nature is not predisposed towards piracy," Warner Bros. CEO Barry Meyer said.

With help from online consultancy Viant, Sony developed the service's distribution platform using software from Cambridge, Mass.,-based Art Technology Group, according to Ira Rubenstein, senior vice president of digital distribution for Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment.

Windows Insecurity

Rubenstein said the service will offer downloads in the RealPlayer and Windows Media Player formats and will use their respective digital rights management technologies. But according to Internet security expert Steve Gibson of Irvine, Calif.,-based Gibson Research, this platform choice will increase the risk of piracy.

"Fundamentally, Windows Media is not a secure platform," Gibson said.

The studios, Gibson says, would need to use the Windows video driver to store the movies on consumers' hard drives. But Microsoft gives away its source code for the drive to developers.

"It would be relatively simple to create a bootleg driver that can capture the film permanently," Gibson said.

Growing Interest

However, Rubenstein says the studios involved realize the security system isn't perfect, but want to capitalize on growing interest in accessing movies online.

Indeed, the recent releases the service puts out will have to compete with illegal digital versions of Hollywood films finding their way online within days of premiering in theaters. This summer, copies of such blockbusters as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Planet of the Apes, and Pearl Harbor, to name a few, were available over the Internet.

And while pirate films are available online, the level of skill required to find them is often beyond that of the average consumer, Rubenstein said. The service, he said, will offer consumers a more attractive choice than free illegal films, with shorter download times and better viewing quality than is possible with digital bootlegs.

During testing of the service this summer, movie files were less than 500MB and took 40 minutes to download, he said.