Digital Society: Practicality of piracy through the analog hole

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There is some heated debate as to whether the FCC should allow movie studios to limit pre-DVD release movies to digital video interfaces with content protection with the use of Selectable Output Control (SOC). One of the key questions is whether the “analog hole” is an enabler of content piracy, and some advocacy groups are suggesting that there is no proof that analog interfaces are a source of piracy. Digital Society has taken up the task of determining through research whether analog interfaces are a potential source of pirated material or not.

How are movies pirated?
The first thing we need to determine is how movies are pirated, and the best way to determine this is to look for pirated versions of the current top 10 movies that are in theaters today and see how they’re being pirated. Table 1 below summarizes the findings after a scan of popular BitTorrent tracker websites.

Note that the term “TELESYNC” is the standard term used by content pirates and it denotes a copy of a movie that was acquired through a camcorder inside a theater. The term “CAM” is also used interchangeably with TELESYNC. The term “screener” typically denotes a special DVD version of the movie used for early movie reviewers. Screeners are passed out to reviewers before the theatrical release and they may be missing post production processing and they often contain watermarks. Sometimes these screeners are leaked out.

Out of the top 10 movies as of November 28, only one of the movies was a “screener” while 9 were poor quality TELESYNC copies obtained through a smuggled camcorder inside a movie theater. Only one of the top 10 from the October 5th list is a confirmed screener leak while others are either TELESYNC or none found. Stan Helsing doesn’t count in the list because the production DVD is already available.

TELESYNC copies are often very poor in audio and video quality which makes it a less attractive offering. If an Standard Definition (SD) or High Definition (HD) version could be obtained via High Definition analog component port which always lacks meaningful content protection measures, then the quality of the pirated material would improve dramatically. In fact, it would likely be better than DVD quality if an HD recorder was used.

How practical is High Definition video capture?
Just a few years ago, it was very impractical to capture HD video via analog port due to the expense and rarity of analog HD capture adapters. Today, analog HD capture adapters are inexpensive and a device like the Hauppauge HD DVR lists at $249. While the quality isn’t as good as the digital version, it is certainly better quality than a DVD if the source was 720P or 1080i HD.

While it’s possible that there will be a way to obtain content illegally by bypassing digital protection technologies, it isn’t a sure thing and any bypass method will likely be patched quickly. The analog HD quality may be slightly inferior to a digital copy, but analog ports are essentially wide open to illicit copying so it may be the preferred method due to its reliability and better-than-DVD quality.

It is understandable that content owners are extremely reluctant to offer pre-DVD movies over subscription television services that were viewable over analog ports as this would enable much higher quality pirated materials. This is likely the reason we don’t have pre-DVD video on demand content because the availability of HD pirated content months before the DVD release would substantially damage DVD sales.

George Ou was a Senior Analyst at before joining Digital Society. Before that, he was Technical Director and Editor at Large at and wrote one of their most popular blogs “Real World IT“. Before journalism, Mr. Ou was a network engineer. He built and designed wired network, wireless network, Internet, storage, security, and server infrastructure for various fortune 100 companies. George Ou is also a Certified Informations Systems Security Professional.