The “analog hole,” that is. In all the pre-holiday, end-of-semester rush I missed the introduction of new copyright legislation to address the so-called analog hole. That hole refers to the fact that most current copy-protection technologies only get in the way of digital copies, limiting CD copying and ripping to MP3, or copying DVDs, for instance. But once a digital signal becomes analog, like when music hits your speakers or a DVD image is transmitted to your analog TV for display, it’s now pretty easy to record, capture, manipulate and copy.
Back in mid-December the House Judiciary Committee introduced a bill intended to close the analog hole by mandating a watermarking technology called VEIL that would instruct recording and digitizing devices to block, limit or handicap recording.
The bill came into my consciousness today because of an open letter written by the CEO of mobile player manufacturer Neuros to the Justice Committee:
The so-called Analog Hole is used primarily by law-abiding consumers who want to time-shift or place-shift their legally obtained content. It is most definitely not the method of choice for content pirates. Why would anybody steal content by recording an analog signal when they can more easily make illegal but digitally perfect copies by “cracking the encryption” directly on the PC? Put another way, trying to reduce copyright piracy by closing the Analog Hole is like outlawing the sun roof to prevent thieves from stealing car stereos. In either case, such legislation would deprive consumers of choice and enjoyment while doing little to reduce theft.
Most commenters on the “analog hole” make it seem as though VEIL is the first seriously considered analog anti-piracy technology. But, in fact, most of the movies you own, on VHS or DVD, are protected by an analog copy-protection technology called Macrovision. It was developed back in the 1980s to fight VHS movie piracy. Simply explained, Macrovision degrades parts of the video signal such that an encoded video should play back normally on a TV, but is distorted when recorded onto another videocassette. The scheme relies on the fact that signal degradation is unavoidable with analog copying, and that VHS video degrades significantly when copied to another VHS videotape.
Macrovision is still on most commercially produced videocassettes, and it’s also integrated into the composite outputs of DVD players so as to prevent VHS copies of DVDs. That’s why DVDs don’t always play back properly if you route the signal through a VCR to your TV. The Macrovision signal is activated by the DVD itself, similar to region encoding.
Further, most consumer DVD recorders are able to detect the presence of the Macrovision signal and will halt recording when it’s there. Thus most DVD recorders won’t dub a DVD, even via a basic composite analog video connection. To a lesser extent, DVD recorders often won’t record from commercial VHS tapes either, depending on how strong and consistent the Macrovision encoding is.
Also back in the 1980s the RIAA was having conniptions about the imminent introduction of Digital Audio Tape in the US, and tried to force the implementation of the CBS-developed “CopyCode” which would have been encoded in all music recordings and which would cause a DAT recorder to stop recording. The “CopyCode” was nothing more than a notch in the recording blanking out a set of frequencies. CBS and the RIAA claimed it was inaudible, but recording engineers, the high fidelity press and equipment manufacturers reported otherwise, and the initiative failed.
Nevetheless, the proposed “analog hole” legislation is bad news and bad policy all around. Further it would only further accelerate the loss of our media heritage as more and more legacy media is rendered legally uncopyable by new digital technologies.