Pictures and sound

While the recording industry was grabbing the headlines last week with its subpoenas of folks caught illegally file sharing -- including college students, parents of teen-agers, even grandparents -- the film industry quietly began its own anti-piracy campaign.

According to a July 22 news release from the Motion Picture Association of America, a series of public-service announcements each will feature someone who works in the film industry explaining the "adverse effects of piracy on the many thousands whose livelihoods depend on the movie-going experience."

A quick Google search turned up more than a half-dozen Web sites where people can download software that will give them access to downloadable movies for a nominal "membership fee" -- from $1 a month to a $29.99 "lifetime membership."

Copying the illicit files to DVDs is encouraged.

So it appears the fears of the association, based in Encino, Calif., are well-placed.

As PCs have grown increasingly powerful and usually include at least a CD-burner as standard equipment, an ever-growing number of home users own hardware capable of viewing, storing and copying movie files.

Only the large size of digitized movies -- 500 megabytes and 800 megabytes -- has slowed potential pirates. A 500-megabyte movie is equal to approximately 110 MP3-encoded songs; an 800-megabyte movie roughly 175 MP3s.

But even on a fast DSL or cable Internet connection, such huge files take 20 minutes to 90 minutes to download. Still, for many, the effort is worth it; certainly enough people are already doing it to attract the MPAA's attention.

And as more home users upgrade to fast broadband connections, so will movie piracy. Most estimates put broadband penetration at about 30 percent of U.S. households now, with the number reaching 50 percent within three years.

Having witnessed the ugly file-sharing battle that the Recording Industry Association of America has been waging in recent years, the film industry has been groping for a strategy to avoid falling victim to a similar fate.

The MPAA's ad campaign is a part of that strategy, but the movie studios also have followed the lead of the record labels in creating their own downloading alternatives, MovieLink and CinemaNow.

Unfortunately, like the sites backed by the record companies, PressPlay and MusicMatch, the anti-piracy concerns of the movie studios' sites mean they're not particularly consumer-friendly.

Problems include difficult site navigation, catalogs limited to just a few hundred films and -- most importantly -- the inability to buy and keep a movie permanently.

We know what happened with downloadable music; in April, Apple Computer Inc. introduced its iTunes Music Store. The store is easy to use and includes just enough DRM, digital rights management, to satisfy the record labels without being overly restrictive on what users can do with the songs they've purchased.

In last week's column, I suggested that Apple's success with the iTunes Music Store eventually could lead to the company becoming a major vendor of digital content, particularly digital video.

An Apple Movie Store could fulfill the same role for the film industry that the iTunes Store has for the record industry: It could serve as role model and test bed for selling legal digital video over the Internet.

The key distinguishing feature of an Apple Movie Store would be the ability to buy and own a movie, though with appropriate DRM restrictions patterned on the iTunes Store. The price likely would be a few dollars less than what you'd pay in a retail store, and would depend on the exact terms of the licensing agreement with the movie studio.

Movies downloaded from MovieLink and CinemaNow cost only $4 to $5, but are temporary. The files must be viewed within 30 days of downloading or they "expire" -- that is, they're deleted from your hard drive.

But once viewing has begun, the expiration date shrinks to 24 hours from the moment the user starts watching the file. It's comparable to the "pay-per-view" or "video on demand" services the cable companies offer.

Not that there's anything wrong with a rental model, but many people may reason it isn't worth the time and bandwidth to get a 600-megabyte file only to have it vanish within 24 hours of viewing.

An Apple Movie Store that offered ownership of the movies, with options for limited DVD burning, would address a demand for permanent files currently served only by the pirate sites.

The iTunes Store is capable of selling digital video, although Apple would need to drastically increase its server capabilities if it chose to launch a full-fledged Movie Store. Apple conceivably could test the idea by offering downloads of music videos through the iTunes Store.

As for DRM, an Apple Movie Store inevitably would use Apple's own QuickTime 6 format. QuickTime 6, like the AAC format used to encode the songs in the iTunes Store, is based upon the MPEG-4 standard and has DRM tools built-in. Apple only would need to determine the parameters of the DRM, such as how many DVD burns would be allowed and how many Macs to which the file could be copied.

Ideally, the DRM also would allow streaming over a local network, much like iTunes' library-sharing feature. Since the latest TiVo models include Apple's Rendezvous technology, Macs and TiVos on a home network can automatically "see" and connect to each other. So you'd be able to watch a movie on your TV set in the living room even though the actual file was stored on your Mac in the den.

What about those limited catalogs? Having a large selection of top-notch movies would be essential, but it would require licensing deals with all the big movie studios.

No one would have a better chance at securing these licensing deals than Steve Jobs, who just accomplished the same feat with the five major record labels for the iTunes Music Store.

In fact, with the iTunes Store as a real-world example of success, Jobs could find enlisting the cooperation of the movie studios an easier task. And as CEO of Pixar Animation Studios Inc., he has the added advantage of being a studio head himself -- a member of their club, as it were.

Further, as with the Music Store, Jobs could offer the safety of a "Mac-only" trial, assuring the studios that the great majority of computer users could not access the service until it was proven to be secure and profitable.

The only thing Apple doesn't have right now is specific movie-downloading and file management software, but it wouldn't be difficult to create another iLife app (iTheater?) using iTunes as the template and incorporating the QuickTime Player.

But don't get too excited. As alluring as the prospect of an Apple Movie Store might be, it's unlikely such a service will appear for at least a year to 18 months.

For now, Apple has its hands full preparing for the Windows version of iTunes. And by then, the larger installed base of broadband users will increase the chances for a movie download service to succeed.

Still, it might not be a bad idea to start stocking up on popcorn.