After hearing Cory Doctorow's terrific guest of honor speech at Boskone, an updated version of his Microsoft DRM speech, I have become interested in finding out about this VEIL technology which is in proposed legislation (Digital Transition Content Security Act, HR 4569) intended to "plug the analog hole" aka the "a-hole." (This rhetoric reminds me of the joke about why the asshole is the body's most important organ. Someone in this process forgot to hire a writer.)
What made my little ears prick up at the discussion of VEIL is the unreasonable secrecy surrounding the technology. It is summarized nicely at Freedom to Tinker:
I emailed the company that sells VEIL and asked for a copy of the specification. I figured I would be able to get it. After all, the bill would make compliance with the VEIL spec mandatory — the spec would in effect be part of the law. Surely, I thought, they’re not proposing passing a secret law. Surely they’re not going to say that the citizenry isn’t allowed to know what’s in the law that Congress is considering. We’re talking about television here, not national security.
After some discussion, the company helpfully explained that I could get the spec, if I first signed their license agreement. The agreement requires me (a) to pay them $10,000, and (b) to promise not to talk to anybody about what is in the spec. In other words, I can know the contents of the bill Congress is debating, but only if I pay $10k to a private party, and only if I promise not to tell anybody what is in the bill or engage in public debate about it.
Worse yet, this license covers only half of the technology: the VEIL decoder, which detects VEIL signals. There is no way you or I can find out about the encoder technology that puts VEIL signals into video.
This secrecy screams SCAM to me, and regular readers of this space know that I have been finding certain kinds of secrecy and scams entertaining of late. So I'm taking a look. Koplar Communications International, home of VEIL technology, seems to be a real company with a real address and real execs and all that (unlike certain companies I've lately looked into). But the response Freedom to Tinker got to their inquiry is just wrong wrong wrong. And in my experience, when you find something like that and start picking at the threads, things get interesting pretty quickly.
So lets pick at threads. I mean, it's not like a technology to be used this widely for consumer applications ought to be classified, is it? This sort of thing is supposed to be open for public debate, i.e. debate by the public.
Here's the opening of the VEIL Wikipedia entry:
Video Encoded Invisible Light (VEIL) is a technology for encoding low-bandwidth digital data bitstream in video signal, developed by VEIL Interactive Technologies. VEIL is compatible with multiple formats of video signals, including PAL, SECAM, and NTSC. The technology is based on a steganographically encoded data stream in the luminance of the videosignal.
The Veil Rights Assertion Mark (VRAM or V-RAM) is a DRM technology combining VEIL with a broadcast flag. It is also known as "CGMS-A plus Veil" and "broadcast flag on steroids."
This morning, I added some listings of the patents plus an application probably associated with this to the Wikipedia entry. (There was one there; I added a few more.)
- United States Patent 6,094,228 Method for transmitting data on viewable portion of a video signal, July 25, 2000
- United States Patent 6,229,572 Method for transmitting data on viewable portion of a video signal, May 8, 2001
- United States Patent 6,661,905 Method for transmitting data on a viewable portion of a video signal, December 9, 2003
- United States Patent 6,992,726 Method and system for enhanced modulation of video signals, January 31, 2006
- United States Patent Application Method and system for embedding device positional data in video signals, March 10, 2005
(There also seem to be some Australian patents I haven't looked into yet.) What do we make of this? As Alex points out in correspondence, t certainly seems possible that the key to this isn't in the patents at all; rather it is in the proposed legislation making it mandatory. Techies, help me out here!
I think I understand the implications of this last one. If we were all chipped like dogs, then the screens could regulate their content based one whomever is standing nearby. Imagine that!
I cast around a bit looking into the company and its CEO. He strikes me as the very Ghost of Television Past, echoing the ideas about how the digital revolution experience could become ever-so-much more like your television. My favorite piece on Koplar is in Business Week and discusses the toy applications of the technology. I LOVE the last line:
Toys and TVs threaten to become intertwined as never before.
The implications of all this remind me of my one and only visit to Disney. I went on the "It's a Small World After All" ride full of dancing dolls in international costumes. When we came out of the tunnel, there was a little sign that said, You're never far from a Bank of America!
Who knew that the ride was more Futuristic than Epcot?
And meanwhile, Freedom to Tinker has another really fine post up on the subject: Analog Hole Bill Requires “Open and Public” Discussion of Secret Technology.
Pick at those threads! This is gonna be fun.
A FURTHER THOUGHT ON THE PATENT APPLICATION: If you assume that the user is chipped and not just the devices, the implications of a mandatory VEIL standard combined with embedding device positional data in video signals are absolutely Phildickian. What appears on the screen of your computer is a video signal, so control of that signal should be understood as control of the reality coming in through the computer, tailored to a specific user or set of users in proximity to the device.
Why assume that the user is chipped? Because, first of all, human RFID is already on the table. The graphic to the right is swiped from the Wikipedia RFID entry. The section of the entry on Human RFID ends:
Cincinnati video surveillance company CityWatcher.com now requires employees to use VeriChip human implantable RFID microchips to enter a secure data center.
Is it a plausible scenario that this might become widespread? Extrapolate a mandatory system for controlling video signals which can tell how close you are to a device and can read your RFID chip. Great system for keeping kids out of online smut, yes?
Now, what other pieces of consumer electronics might also read this chip as, say, part of the consumer-level watermarking process? Can we extrapolate as part of an extended VEIL system the possibility of video cameras watermarking your video and photos with the IDs of everyone nearby when something was recorded ? I don't see why not.
Am I being unfair to a technology evolved to make your favorite cartoon character toys interact with the television? If this were just about toys, yes. But it's not. It's about mandating a potentially repressive standard in the US for which the entertainment industry will provide munificent R&D money. Then, using its international leverage, the US can force these technologies down the throats of every repressive government in the world where, to paraphrase William Gibson, the street will find its own uses.
But with all the surrounding secrecy of the VEIL technology, there is also no particular reason to believe that it would really function at the most basic level advertised, securing "content" for "content providers" and defending it against "piracy." So again, we need to take a close look at what those patents actually describe.
Also, I think we need to interrogate the notion of the "piracy" of "intellectual property": it seems too me that what may potentially happen to the Internet bears a much closer resemblance to "hijacking on the high seas or in similar contexts; taking a ship or plane away from the control of those who are legally entitled to it" than a bunch of kids sharing music with their friends. If this all goes through and the Internet is transformed, who are the REAL pirates?
MEANWHILE, a reader provides a defense-related link: Koplar registered with the Defense Contracting Command as an "interested party" in bidding on the Iraq Media Network.
TOP DONORS TO THE CAMPAIGNS OF HR 4569's SPONSORS: This info comes from OpenSecrets.org, which explains how to read these charts:
This chart lists the top donors to this member of Congress during the election cycle. The organizations themselves did not donate, rather the money came from the organization's PAC, its individual members or employees or owners, and those individuals' immediate families. Organization totals include subsidiaries and affiliates.
The strong presence of entrenched media and entertainment industries is present in both charts below.
I wonder if either of the sponsors or ANY of the big donors are actually familiar with the super-secret technical specs of VEIL. (Bet they aren't! How 'bout it guys? Does anyone who does not actually work for Koplar know the specs? Let's see some hands.) There is something unpleasantly consistent about a proposal to use a secret technology to suppress the release of information. I have the suspicion that those supporting this have bought into the idea that they personally don't need to know the details.
At present, the status of HR4569 is listed as "Referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary."
Meanwhile, the EETimes reports that someone named David Birch has had a very entertaining outburst at a 3GSM World Congress panel. (I'm going to ignore the gender rhetoric because of the general validity of the point.)
In a rant that awoke all the participants in this end-of-the-day session, Birch of Consult Hyperion, a U.K.-based independent IT consultancy, reminded the panel of mobile operators, device-makers and standards developers that the telecommunications industry is at least 15 times larger than the Hollywood "content" industry. Yet, Hollywood is prevailing in its demands for embedded technologies designed to prevent illegal sharing of music and video by mobile phone users.
"Why are you such a bunch of big girls?" asked Birch. "Why don’t you tell the content owners to just get stuffed?"
. . .
The panelists, nonplussed by Birch's outburst, left it to Willms Buhse, vice chair of the Open Mobile Alliance to attempt a response. He said that the imbalance between Hollywood’s size and its power was a matter of glamour, and its effect on public policymakers.
Citing the comments of an unnamed professor, Buhse said, "With any politicians who make laws, you’re going to do much better with Christina Aguilera than you are with a handset."
I say for the record that, speaking as a thin blonde content provider (and a girl), I heartily support the idea that politicians and the tech industry should tell megacorporate entertainment to get stuffed.
I've been looking at the house.gov site trying to find statements from the bill's sponsors on what the heck they think they're doing. Here is Sensenbrenner's press release from December 16, 2005:
House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-Wis.) today introduced legislation strengthening intellectual property protections by securing analog content from theft. The use of devices to convert analog content into digital versions which can easily be uploaded onto the Internet is a significant technical weakness in content protection. H.R. 4569, "The Digital Transition Content Security Act of 2005," is cosponsored by Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.).
Chairman Sensenbrenner stated,"This legislation is designed to secure analog content from theft that has been made easier as a result of the transition to digital technologies. Although many of those who convert analog content into digital form are not engaging in any illegal conduct, there are a good number of criminals who take advantage of existing weaknesses in legislation and technology to obtain copyrighted content and then redistribute for profit at the copyright owner's expense. This practice is nothing short of theft."
"There is no doubt that pirating intellectual property can be a profitable criminal activity. Just this week, a software pirate pled guilty in Alexandria, Virginia to making $20 million in sales of counterfeit intellectual property. New technologies have made the widespread redistribution of copyrighted content significantly easier," added Chairman Sensenbrenner. Ranking Members Conyers said, "As one of our most successful industries, it is important that we protect the content community from unfettered piracy. One aspect of that fight is making sure that digital media do not lose their content protection simply because of lapses in technology. This bill will help ensure that technology keeps pace with content delivery."
H.R. 4569 mandates the use of two technologies to limit and frustrate redistribution of video content. This legislation builds upon existing law by mandating the detection and response to two separate technologies that work together to defeat pirates. The two technologies are the Content Generation Management System - Analog (CGMS-A) and Video Encoded Invisible Light (VEIL).
The legislation would require that devices that convert analog content pass through the CGMS-A and VEIL content protection signals contained in the original version. To ensure that the technology used does not become outdated, the Patent and Trademark Office is authorized to conduct ongoing rulemakings to update the technology.
"I urge all interested parties to continue to negotiate to see if a private sector solution can be fully developed to secure analog content from theft. This issue is simply too important for parties to avoid negotiations. Nonetheless, I look forward to working on this legislation next year," Chairman Sensenbrenner concluded.
I also found something from Conyers from April 2005:
Content owners and the high-tech industry should be commended for responding to consumer demand for digital music. For years, consumers have been clamoring for access to digital content. Because content protection technology and content owners had not caught up with the Internet, music lovers turned to illegal download sites like Napster and Kazaa for digital content.
We had heard that, if the content industry would just create a legal avenue for obtaining digital music, consumers would embrace it. The premonition was largely true. The record industry and high-tech worked together to develop digital content protection, to clear the rights needed to get music online, and to get music on the Internet. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the response to legitimate digital content has been overwhelming: in 2004, only twenty-four percent of music downloaders had tried legitimate download sites; in 2005 to date, the number jumped to forty-three percent.
It is probably safe to say that the reason for this overwhelming response is the late 2003 launch of Apple iTunes. In business for a little over a year, iTunes has sold a record-breaking 300 million songs through its online store. Other download sites, like Napster and Rhapsody, are gaining speed by offering alternatives such as monthly subscription services instead of just downloads and allowing transfers to numerous digital music players. No matter how you view it, the marketplace is working.
Digital piracy existed long before legitimate services like iTunes came onto the market and, unfortunately, it likely will continue no matter how much easier the songwriters, recording artists, and record labels make it to obtain music digitally.
Here's the thing: There is really a whole lot more at stake here than whether record labels or film studios live or die. The Internet offers utopian possibilities borne of a kind of transparency that the world has never before experienced, transparency that can save lives and make for better governments worldwide. And through DRM initiatives we are being asked to part with those possibilities for the sake of record companies and film studios. I don't think so. No. Here in the 21st century, things are going to be different and better.
Here is the membership list for the House Committee on the Judiciary, where HR 4569 sits currently. Let's kill it:
Coverage of the hearing Thursday 11/03/2005 - 2:45 PM on Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property Oversight Hearing on "Content Protection in the Digital Age: The Broadcast Flag, High-Definition Radio, and the Analog Hole" is available HERE. Included is a link to a webcast of the hearing and pdfs of the testimony. The witnesses at the hearing were:
- Honorable Dan Glickman, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)
- Mitch Bainwol, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)
- Gigi B. Sohn, President, Public Knowledge
- Michael D. Petricone, Vice President, Government Affairs, Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) on behalf of CEA and the Home Recording Rights Coalition.
I have been letting the sound of the hearing wash over me while I do other things. Ten years ago, publishers started demanding of authors electronic rights in contract negotiations for no additional compensation. The authors had very little leverage with which to resist. My personal reaction, listening to the entertainment executives complaining in the Anelog Hole hearing about the potential for uncompensated "creators" (by which they mean corporations) is Cry me a river! I don't know how the details of this were worked out in film and music, but in print publishing, the very digital rights that it is claimed need protection were demanded of authors by over-powerful corporations over the author's collective objections, in large part without additional compensation. Was that piracy?
But -- regardless of whether pushing authors into the position of involuntarily surrendering their digital rights a decade ago was piracy -- the whole issue of exactly how corporations will be compensated for administering the creative properties under their control pales into insignificance when considered in the context of the loss of worldwide transparency the industry proposals would entail.