Commentary

Piracy And Securing The Digital Media Supply Chain

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) estimates that U.S. studios lose more than $3 billion annual to piracy. Consider recent issues:

"American Gangster" is pirated and available on DVD for $5 two weeks prior to its theatrical release.

The Writers Guild of America and studios negotiate for important slices of the digital media pie.

And, in the midst of all this, consider how digital media is being consumed. Are we listening to songs on compact disc or on .mp3 players? The truth, of course, is that we're doing both. But, will (and that's the important tense -- future) .mp3 listeners overtake CD listeners? This is one example of just how one form of digital media -- "the song" -- has the power to change everything, upset the business model, force it to change and to morph and raise countless discussions and opinions on piracy.

These issues only intensify when the discussion turns to films, television shows and the generic term: "video. Not that there's anything different in the real value of content despite it being "music" or "films," but the media and entertainment) industry tends to take the collective stance that "what happened to music isn't going to happen to us." Even so, an alarming amount of valuable content is available prior to a production's official release.

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Why? How does it tend to happen? To be sure, there are many cases of the overzealous (and sometimes just plain money-greedy) individual who thought it would be fun to make a dub of a film or an HD copy to share/post/sell. But, regardless of the motive, at the heart of the problem are two dreadful words: physical distribution. As long as the M&E industry continues to make physical (film, tape, DVD, CD, etc.) copies of valuable content prior to the official release, there is a substantial risk of that content being in harm's way.

On Nov. 21, the U.K. government acknowledged it lost child benefit data on at least 25 million people, "making it the largest loss of personal information ever reported." The information was included on two discs and not encrypted. Among the data: names, dates of birth, bank accounts, and addresses. There's that darn physical media distribution problem, again...

Now, consider the $150 million feature film which has, say, 600 visual effects shots. After the film has been scanned in telecine, the data must go to various visual effects facilities. Some of these are around the corner, some are in different continents. To get them around the corner, often these files are copied onto a 500 GB Firewire drive and then bicycle-couriered to their destination. Hardly a secure transfer method, and perhaps there has never been a problem before, and, yes, the courier is bonded, but if it were cash, would you send it that way? If it were that valuable and there was so much pent-up demand for a look at those images and you were potentially putting at risk that $150 million investment, wouldn't you have an armored truck, with guards and guns (and real bullets in them) and wouldn't you have procedures to follow? Precise procedures about roles, protocols, how the money is picked up and how it is delivered? You'd also have a lot of safety nets: you'd have radios, GPS tracking, and communications systems and, when all else fails, good old fashioned lead (or those environmentally friendly copper polymer bullets...).

Now, let's take a look at the M&E industry and how quickly it is transforming into an "always on," 24/7 globally dispersed collaboration and distribution business. For example, a film is shooting in Australia only to have editing take place in Los Angeles while visual effects are spread out over 10 visual effects facilities. The time that it takes to physically move content, especially when delays are incurred due to clearing customs, makes it clear that physical distribution simply cannot keep pace with the changing M&E business climate. The threat of piracy is not the sole factor in making clear the need to move away from physically distributing assets. Time to move content around is a major obstacle in fueling the digital media supply chain.

Sure, there are some threats that simply seem to work. It's interesting that, amidst all the issues of piracy, the M&E industry seems to forget what happens every January in the U.S. Oh, you know, that little spectacle known as The Super Bowl. Those television commercials -- those 30-second spectacles that in 2008 will cost $2.6 million -- don't get pirated. They unfold as secretly as can be, though, certainly, as hyped as possible. Why, because the problem is somewhat "contained. From advertising agency to production house to post-production house, everyone knows this: their jobs and the agency contract are on the line. Mess up and both are lost. And that can destroy a company.

Today, for "Hollywood" and the M&E industry, piracy can be severely diminished. Securing the bits and bytes of digital media when they are most vulnerable -- during the content creation stage -- can be accomplished by recognizing that a digital media supply chain exists and that a strategy for implementing a digital media distribution system is critical.

What are some of the benefits and advantages of a digital media distribution system? Among them: 1. Digital media can be put on an IP (Internet Protocol) network and all media movements can be tracked. 2. The ability to certify the delivery of content. 3. The ability to encrypt the content. 4. The ability to accelerate the movement of content from its origination point to its destination point from a central location to ensure that the right piece of content gets to the right place at the right time.

With "digital" and "information technology" touching and redefining every aspect of the M&E industry, the digital media supply chain falls apart and is prone to content piracy and lost revenue as long as the M&E industry continues to rely on physical distribution.

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