Anti-pirates: Vivendi, Thomson

American media companies and electronics manufacturers may be adversaries in the conflict over digital copy protection, but their French counterparts have decided to make love, not war.

On Friday, April 19, media conglomerate Vivendi Universal SA and electronics giant Thomson Multimedia announced a partnership to develop anti-piracy technology. Vivendi is the parent company of European television network and cable system Canal Plus, Universal Music Group, and Universal Pictures. Thomson Multimedia is parent of RCA Electronics. Thomson, curiously, helped develop the MP3 audio format that made Internet file-sharing possible.

The two plan to develop a broad range of copy-protection technologies that will encompass television programs, video-on-demand services, satellite and cable broadcasts, DVDs, and recorded music. The partners will work with other technology companies and international standards organizations to develop viable schemes for copy protection, sometimes known as "digital rights management."

The agreement was seen by some observers as "upping the ante" in the anti-piracy game. It's also the sort of cooperation that could produce better results than government-mandated solutions, such as the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, recently introduced in the US Senate by South Carolina Senator Earnest "Fritz" Hollings.

Vivendi and Thomson will devote their immediate attention to DVD replication, according to a joint statement. Fear of an impending "movie Napster" has the film industry scrambling for a solution. The growing availability of DVD burners could lead to relatively easy bit-for-bit duplication of movies, just as audio CDs can now be duplicated. That, combined with increasing broadband access, could allow the free circulation of pirated full-resolution movies in the near future.

Once they have made headway on the DVD problem, the partners plan to turn their attention to Internet distribution of copyrighted material—including recorded music, a fight that many believe has already been lost. Despite what may be a permanent shutdown of Napster, audio file-swapping continues unabated. The music industry blames the phenomenon for a global downturn in music sales. In mid-April, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry reported that worldwide revenue from music sales dropped 5% in 2001 (to $33.7 billion), the second year in a row the industry had seen a decline.