Putting a Watermark on Oscar Film 'Screeners' Film awards season means that members of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will get DVD "screeners" of movies under consideration -- and inevitably, some of those screeners end up on the Web as illegal film downloads. Technology and culture contributor Xeni Jardin reports on efforts to stop the pirates using unique software that puts a "watermark" on electronic versions of the films.
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Putting a Watermark on Oscar Film 'Screeners'

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Putting a Watermark on Oscar Film 'Screeners'

Putting a Watermark on Oscar Film 'Screeners'

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

It's award season in Hollywood and everyone who's anyone is getting flooded with screeners, those special review copies of movies for awards voters. Despite some stern warnings forbidding outside distribution, many of these screeners end up on the Internet where they're downloaded illegally. Well, our regular tech contributor Xeni Jardin reports on the effectiveness of high-tech tools being used to track the pirates and keep screeners off the Web.

(Soundbite of "Memoirs of a Geisha")

Unidentified Woman: A story like mine has never been told.

XENI JARDIN reporting:

Many voters for this year's Academy Awards will be watching movies like "Memoirs of a Geisha" at home, thanks to the widespread distribution of screening copies. However, that distribution network has fed into the demand for free, illegal movie downloads. Already the screener for "Geisha" and others for "Syriana," "North Country" and "Corpse Bride" are all available online.

Experts can identify the mass screeners and sometimes even trace the identity of the leaker, thanks to technology being adapted by a technologist like Jan Jao(ph).

Mr. JAN JAO (Technologist): OK, now the system starting watermark every frame.

JARDIN: Hunched over a computer, doing a little old-fashioned Hollywood detective work is Jan Jao. He's the chief technology officer in the content security division of Thompson, the parent company of Technicolor. Jao developed software that inserts into digital movie files what's known as a watermark, like an electronic bread crumb trail.

Mr. JAO: We insert the invisible stamp into every frame of the movie, and we produce a stamp for every recipient in this case.

JARDIN: That stamp is a short string of numbers hidden in the DVD file. People watching the movie can't see it, but computer forensics experts can use it to track down leaked copies of movies that end up online. Jao's software can automatically generate a watermark for each of the many thousands of DVDs destined for Academy members. When a film shows up on file-sharing networks, forensics pros like Jao use those watermarks to trace the screeners back to their source. Still, Princeton University computer security researcher Alex Halderman says the technology has its limits.

Mr. ALEX HALDERMAN (Princeton University): It's just one piece evidence. It's not a conclusive link that proves that, say, you or I released a screener onto peer-to-peer network.

JARDIN: In other words, let's say your car is found by police at the scene of a bank heist. That doesn't prove you robbed the bank. In the case of these screeners, someone could have stolen it from its rightful recipient and posted it on the Internet. Often, recipients aren't at fault at all. A large number of pirated movies originate inside studios and service companies that process movies. Better security within the industry could help prevent that.

Sometimes, however, the methods used to secure screeners work and they work so well the movies are inaccessible to the very people who need to see them. This year, organizers of the British film Academy Awards, or BAFTA, shipped members encrypted DVDs designed to play only on special devices, also supplied exclusively to members. But with their screeners for Steven Spielberg's film "Munich," everything that could go wrong did. They wouldn't play because they were encrypted for North America, not Europe.

Mr. PATRICK von SYCHOWSKI (Unique Digital): I thought it was just a monumental cock-up.

JARDIN: Patrick von Sychowski of film tech company Unique Digital, has been a voting BAFTA member for five years.

Mr. von SYCHOWSKI: I was dismayed because effectively I couldn't watch the film. I cannot make it to a screening event, so obviously I can't vote for it one way or the other, and therefore I think "Munich" just isn't going to get many votes.

JARDIN: BAFTA didn't respond to repeat inquiries. But von Sychowski says there have been other blunders, too. Films are sometimes resized to make room for studio disclaimers or warnings, and that, he says, can ruin the viewing experience.

Mr. von SYCHOWSKI: "Brokeback Mountain," for example, was both letterboxed and cropped on the sides, so there was a four-by-three scan of a letterbox image. So what you're watching is a small rectangle of a film with a very big dark border around it. And for a film that's about spectacular Western outdoor scenery, it looks more like the "Brokeback Molehill."

JARDIN: Because BAFTA members can only vote for films they'd seen, some say the "Munich" DVD fiasco should disqualify Spielberg's movie from consideration. Von Sychowski and other members say they hope whatever methods are used to keep movies out of pirates' hands next year, the screeners will still get to voters where they belong.

For NPR News in Los Angeles, I'm Xeni Jardin.

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