Is This Microsoft-NBC ‘Copyright Cop’ Thing Bullshit or What?

Been thinking about this supposed “copyright cop” feature announced yesterday in the news that NBC had worked out a deal with Microsoft to sell its TV shows in the Zune store. Saul Hansell of The New York Times broke the story:

Late Tuesday afternoon I reached J.B. Perrette, the president of digital distribution for NBC Universal, to ask why NBC found Microsoft’s video store more appealing than Apple’s. He explained that NBC, like most studios, would like the broadest distribution possible for its programming. But it has two disputes with Apple.

First, Apple insists that all TV shows have an identical wholesale price so that it can sell all of them at $1.99. NBC wants to sell its programs for whatever price it chooses.

Second, Apple refused to cooperate with NBC on building filters into its iPod player to remove pirated movies and videos. Microsoft, by contrast, will accept NBC’s pricing scheme and will work with it to try to develop a copyright “cop” to be installed on its devices.

This is not the first time NBC executives have vented publicly regarding Apple’s refusal to work with them on this sort of feature. But whatever it is Microsoft promised NBC in this regard, the technology doesn’t exist yet:

Similarly, the copyright filtering system is still in development and its exact form has not been set. Mr. Perrette said the plan is to create “filtering technology that allows for playback of legitimately purchased content versus non-legitimately purchased content.”

He said this would be similar to systems being tested by Microsoft, Google and others that are meant to block pirated clips from video sharing sites. NBC is also working with Internet service providers like AT&T to put similar filters right into the network.

But so how could this possibly work? What could Microsoft do that would satisfy these demands from NBC? You, the user, have a video file in a format supported by the Zune. How exactly does your PC or the Zune itself determine whether the content of the video infringes on an NBC copyright?

Google’s scheme for YouTube involves a centralized database of “ID files” created from videos uploaded by copyright holders. When you upload a new video, their tool creates an ID “fingerprint” and attempts to match it against the database of ID fingerprints from the reference videos submitted by copyright holders. Regardless how well this scheme works for YouTube (and it doesn’t exactly seem to have eliminated copyright-infringing material), it doesn’t seem feasible for a desktop player, unless Microsoft plans to host such a database centrally and require the Zune desktop software to upload “fingerprints” and wait for an “OK” before allowing you to sync new videos to your Zune.

Smells a bit like magic, though, to expect a “fingerprint” system to accurately identify an episode of a particular TV series. NBC could do something like watermarking — adding some sort of barcode-like image to every frame of the shows it wishes to protect. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine they could do it in a way that would be non-distracting to human eyes but easily parsed by computer, but it also sounds like the sort of thing that could be easily smudged-out by future versions of video encoding software.

It’s the sort of system that needs to be extremely accurate. If the matching algorithm is too permissive and fails to identify much of the material it’s supposed to catch, what’s the point? But if it’s too strict, and incorrectly flags non-infringing video and blocks you from watching them (or, worse, “removes” them from your video library — and note that “remove” is indeed the verb NBC jerkos have used when describing this dystopic feature), well, that’d be infuriating, to say the least.

The only feasible option would be for the Zune (and its desktop counterpart) to only play DRM-protected media. I.e. disallowing any video files other than the ones you purchase or rent from NBC partner sites, disallowing even videos created with your own camera. That would work, but the obvious problem with the idea is that it wouldn’t sell. It’d be one thing if Microsoft were the company with 70 percent share in the handheld media player market, but they’re not. They’re the company with 4 percent share.

Microsoft is craven, and they’ve been known to engage in boil-the-ocean sorts of software projects before, but they’re not stupid. Or at least not so stupid as to think that anything along the lines of what they’ve promised NBC would accomplish anything other than killing the Zune. So I think they’ve pulled a fast one on NBC, promising them something they have no intention to deliver.

Update: Perhaps this whole post was a waste of pixels. Microsoft spokesperson Adam Sohn told CNet: “Microsoft has no plans or commitments to implement content filtering features in the Zune family of devices as part of our content distribution deal with NBC.” But so why does NBC’s J.B. Perrette think otherwise?

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