Turning the Camera on Movie Pirates
Turning the Camera on Movie Pirates
Companies are heeding the film industry's call for help, devising high-tech ways to detect camcorders in theaters
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By Jon Healey, Times Staff Writer
Hollywood's billion-dollar question landed in Howard Gladstone's e-mail one night: "Can you find a camcorder operating inside a movie theater?"
His company, Trakstar of Weston, Fla., responded by whipping up a camera detector out of technology that soldiers use to spot snipers. That's the answer, Gladstone says — but he may be only half-right.
Portable digital video cameras, or camcorders, lie at the root of Hollywood's global piracy problem. Armed with ever-smaller and more powerful cameras, bootleggers in theaters manage to copy every major film within days of its release. These underground versions soon pop up on pirated disks sold in Los Angeles, London, Berlin and Shanghai — offering people around the world a crude copy of a big-time release for less than the price of a movie ticket.
Trakstar is one of a small but growing number of companies trying to sell Tinseltown a high-tech defense against those pesky cams. But even as these firms answer Hollywood's call, studio executives question whether a single silicon-powered bullet can kill this type of piracy.
Once a digital camera is spotted, who can be relied upon to confront and hold the suspect until the police arrive? A 17-year-old usher making $7 an hour? Beyond that, who will be paying for the detection equipment, which is likely to cost thousands of dollars per movie screen? And how long can any anti-camcorder technology work before the bootleggers find a way around it?
Despite all that, Gladstone is confident that Trakstar has an effective solution: a tamper-resistant device that uses brief bursts of energy to detect camera lenses and digital sensors.
At least one other company — Sentek Consulting, a San Diego start-up run by two former Navy SEALs — is offering a competing camcorder detector. Meanwhile, two companies are modifying movie projectors, trying to interfere with camcorders without damaging the picture on the screen.
To stamp out illegal recording, the technologies would have to be installed in a significant number of the 100,000 movie screens around the world, and that wouldn't be cheap.
On the other hand, the stakes for Hollywood are much higher than the equipment's price tag.
The Motion Picture Assn. of America estimates that studios lost $3.5 billion in potential sales last year to bootleggers.
Although pirates have been leeching profit off the movie industry since the advent of the videocassette recorder in the 1970s, digital video recording and high-speed Internet connections have magnified the problem exponentially. Pirates these days can duplicate their bootlegs in minutes, make unlimited numbers of perfect copies and send their wares electronically around the globe.
Typically, a movie is recorded in theaters only a handful of times, creating enough raw material to feed thousands of bootlegging operations worldwide.
For example, the same version of "Hidalgo" popped up on street corners, in malls and at flea markets on four continents shortly after the film's U.S. release in March. And all the early bootlegs of "Seabiscuit" last year appear to have come from a single illegal copy.
That's why studios see defeating camcorders in the theaters as crucial to choking off the entire supply line of pirated movies.
The main element of Trakstar's Pirate Eye system is a shoebox-size device mounted next to the movie screen, facing the audience. An emitter inside the box bounces energy waves off the seats one small group at a time, and a sensor records the reflections. The reflections are analyzed using software from Apogen Technologies Inc. of McLean, Va., a government contractor best known for image-processing gear. The software was designed to pick out a camcorder in a sea of bodies, seats, popcorn tubs and soda cups.
Typically, pirates don't rely solely on the darkness in a theater to camouflage their mischief. They also will cover their camcorders or stick them in obscure places they hope ushers and other moviegoers won't see.
But to record a movie, they have to expose the camcorder's lens and point it steadily at the screen. And that's what Trakstar's system looks for — the reflected image of a camera lens.
One advantage to Trakstar's approach, Gladstone said, is the involvement of defense contractors such as Apogen.
"They never design a system without understanding what the obvious countermeasures would be," he said. "The war against piracy is an ongoing battle of measures and countermeasures."
Gladstone successfully demonstrated the detector in February to industry executives at the Digital Cinema Laboratory, a project of the Entertainment Technology Center at USC. But several studio executives told Gladstone that they wanted one more feature: the ability to spot "pinhole" cameras with lenses a fraction of an inch wide.
Trakstar went back to Apogen, which added a feature to the detector. Using a different wavelength of energy, it found a way to detect the electronic sensors, called charge-coupled devices, inside digital cameras no matter how small the lens.
With the modifications complete, Gladstone asked the Motion Picture Assn. of America this month to conduct a feasibility study of his technology. The studios are still reviewing the proposal.
Rival Sentek was initially in the business of selling sniper detectors to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then Mike Massa, Sentek's vice president for government services, read this year about studios using night-vision goggles at screenings. He wondered: "Why don't we use our technology to help these guys?"
Sentek President and Chief Executive Eric Basu wouldn't comment on how the company's technology worked, other than to say it generated a distinct signal when encountering camcorders, including pinhole cameras. The underlying technology, he said, was powerful enough to detect lenses almost a mile away.
"Anybody that's trying to film the movie is going to have to point their [camcorder] at the screen," Basu said. "When they point their device at the screen, they're going to give off a hit."
Although there may be some takers for Trakstar's or Sentek's devices, there are plenty of skeptics as well, who see a host of potential problems with any type of camcorder detector.
For example, one Hollywood executive who asked not to be named said theater owners would insist on having control over any detectors that were in their buildings. And if you give theater personnel control, bootleggers would almost certainly pay for undetected, unauthorized screenings.
"Whoever has access to the projection booth and the film … is certainly going to have access to this" camcorder detection equipment, the executive said.
Trakstar's system tries to guard against tampering by connecting the detectors to a network that would be monitored remotely. If someone unplugged a detector, the monitors would know immediately, Gladstone said.
Even if everything worked as designed, there would be at least one other problem: Only the District of Columbia, California and 17 other states have specifically outlawed using camcorders to record movies in theaters. In recent months in other states, police have released several suspected recorders because they didn't know what charges to file against them.
"We're certainly interested in any solution that could be relatively easily installed across the exhibitor base, that would require minimal maintenance, was difficult to circumvent and reasonably priced," said Darcy Antonellis, senior vice president for worldwide anti-piracy operations at Time Inc.'s Warner Bros. Entertainment. "What we've seen to date … [starts] to get into higher levels of complexity that may or may not work on a large scale."
An anti-camcorder strategy doesn't have to start with a huge deployment. Most camcorder use for bootleggers has been done in and around New York and Los Angeles, so the first detectors could be concentrated in those cities. The detectors also could be shifted from screen to screen within a multiplex to deter bootleggers at less cost.
In the long run, though, the strategy will be effective only if every screen can be protected, said Brad Hunt, chief technology officer for the Motion Picture Assn. of America.
"The pirates are smart enough to figure out and find the one theater where you're not deployed," he said. "As soon as they know there's one theater that's not using it, it's on the bulletin board [online]; everyone's talking about it."
Rather than trying to catch pirates in the act, Cinea Inc. of Reston, Va., and Princeton, N.J.-based Sarnoff Corp. are working on technology that would quietly sabotage their recordings.
The companies' research, which is supported by a $2-million federal grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, focuses on a crucial difference between human vision and camcorder recording: Humans see the world in continuous scenes, but a camcorder captures the action in front of its lens as a rapid series of frozen images. The goal is to project a digital version of a movie studded with extraneous marks that moviegoers wouldn't notice but that camcorders would capture and unwittingly transform into annoying patterns, pulses or other distortions.
It may take another year of work, however, before the companies know whether they can pull it off.
"There's a trade-off there," said Christos A. Polyzois, senior director of commercial systems for Sarnoff. "The easier I make the marks on the eye, the less distraction they cause on the camcorder. And the more distraction they cause on the camcorder, the more likely … they may be viewed by the human eye."
If Cinea and Sarnoff succeed, their technology could be incorporated into the digital projection systems that the movie industry is expected to deploy in the next decade as replacements for film projectors. Although several other companies have been exploring ways to alter film projectors to defeat those using camcorders, digital projection seems to be the most promising route, said Charles S. Swartz, executive director of the Entertainment Technology Center.
Switching to digital projectors also would eliminate some of the current sources of piracy — for example, there would be no canisters of film for bootleggers to grab and copy. But there are many technical details and financial arrangements that must be worked out by studios and theater owners before the industry can shift to digital on a broad scale.
"We're not going to have a 10,000-projector rollout tomorrow," said John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. "It's going to take us a little longer to get there."
Several of the major studios are trying to attack the camcorder problem on multiple fronts, rather than relying on a technological fix.
The MPAA started a reward program in June that promised theater employees as much as $500 for detecting, stopping and turning in camcorders. Duly motivated, multiplex workers have caught at least 23 people with camcorders, cameras or tape recorders since the program went into effect. Their actions have led to nine arrests so far — including that of a 16-year-old in Chatsworth who was accused of trying to capture "Spider-Man 2" on opening night in June. At least nine employees have collected rewards.
"Offering employees at theaters a $500 reward if they catch somebody camcording may ultimately be the best tool," the Hollywood executive said.
Studios also are beefing up their ability to trace the sources of bootlegged movies so they can try to plug those leaks directly. In addition, they are pushing for more enforcement of existing laws, lobbying for new federal and state laws against recording in theaters and trying to convince the moviegoing public that piracy is a bad thing.
"I'm not going to put all my eggs in one basket," a studio executive said. "Pirates are really creative."