Thursday, May 12, 2005

RFID: Polly Want a Microchip

Digital pirates beware! A UCLA research group is developing an RFID system intended to prevent illegal duplication of digital movies. Rajit Gadh is a UCLA professor and the director of WINMEC (Wireless Internet for the Mobile Enterprise Consortium).

On May 3rd Gadh announced the WINMEC RFID research project as a tool to facilitate digital rights management. The plan is to embed RFID tags in DVDs, and RFID readers in DVD players. Tagged DVDs would only play in RFID-enabled players, and the players would only play tagged DVDs.

Hmm. It's too early to know exactly what WINMEC's project will mean to law-abiding movie enthusiasts, but I do have some questions:

If I decide to fork out the money for a groovy new RFID-enabled DVD player, what am I going to do with all of the non-RFID-enabled movie DVDs I bought to replace all of the non-DVD VHS movie tapes I originally bought?

And if I decide not to buy a groovy new RFID-enabled DVD player, will I still be able to buy non-RFID-tagged DVDs of current movies to play in my non-RFID-enabled DVD player?

And what about my quaint, but decidely un-groovy, non-RFID-enabled small town library? They're going to have to hold a lot of bake sales and car washes to finance two movie collections: one set of groovy new RFID-enabled DVDs and one set of non-RFID-enabled DVDs.

I hope that all of my friends and relatives invest in groovy new RFID-enabled DVD players, otherwise we won't be able to hold movie parties, entertain each other's kids, or borrow each other's movies anymore.

One more thing: WINMEC notes that the groovy new RFID-enabled DVD players would have to link to an online network in order to authenticate the DVDs. The system would first establish the DVD sale as legitimate, and then link the sale with personal identifying information of the specific customer. Every RFID-enabled DVD you purchase will be tracked, linked to you and retained in an electronic history.

The Motion Picture Association of America reports that the U.S. motion picture industry loses more then $3B a year in "potential revenue" because of piracy. In reality, the MPAA doesn't know how much of their "potential revenue" is lost to piracy.

First, because they can't measure "potential"... any projection is one of multiple potentials... that's why it's called "potential".

Second, for the MPAA to know exactly how much of their "potential revenue" is stolen by digital pirates, they would have to have a fairly robust method of tracking pirates and their digital booty. If that were the case, there would be no need for embedded RFID chips in DVDs.

I have tremendous respect for copyright laws. As a freelance writer, I couldn't make a living without them. I get angry at people who steal other people's work by their selfish, unethical, cheap, childish digital piracy. (No matter what you folks tell yourselves, it is stealing.) But, frankly, it's not anyone's business what I watch in the privacy of my own home, as long as I acquire it through legal means.

WINMEC's initiative is like making every middle-aged white male wear an electronic ankle bracelet every day, so that the next time a middle-aged white male commits a crime the police will know the whereabouts of all middle-aged white males. It's a bit of an overreaction, don't you think?

Sally Bacchetta - Freelance Writer

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