Distribute Expertise: Blu-ray Blues
Whenever Blu-ray comes up, there are questions about authoring. But equally daunting are the issues of distribution and the licensing costs associated with Blu-ray replication. After reviewing contracts and FAQs on the websites for the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) and Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA), I could see why there was a lot of confusion about costs — the materials are dense and confusing.
To clarify the licensing issues, I spoke with representatives with both associations, and I detail my findings below. Before discussing these fees, however, let's review why licensing related to Blu-ray replication is relevant for small and large producers alike.
At a high level, you have two choices for producing Blu-ray Discs: You can produce multiple recordable discs either via your own recorder or a service bureau, or you can replicate at the same kind of facility that Hollywood uses to produce its mass-market Blu-ray Discs. This article outlines the pros and cons — as well as the licensing issues — of both.
Blu-ray recordable discs are still quite expensive, but more importantly, recordable discs don't play reliably across the range of Blu-ray players. Judging from personal experience, and from the forums and message boards, it's clear that many producers share my pain. Overall, playback compatibility is generally manageable when producing for one or two known players, but it quickly gets out of control once distribution broadens.
For example, suppose you were tasked with producing 100 Blu-ray single-layer discs to send to clients or remote offices or your far-flung sales team. Let's ignore the authoring and licensing costs for a moment and look strictly at disc-reproduction costs. If you jobbed the entire production out to a service bureau, you'd end up paying between $3,500 and $4,000 (see duplicationondemand.com).
If you produced the recordable discs inhouse, you could probably buy the media for about $1,200 to $1,500, but then you'd need to manually reproduce and print them, which means buying a Blu-ray printer/recorder, which starts at about $3,000 (see primera.com). It probably makes better economic sense to buy the printer/recorder and reproduce the discs yourself, but either way, you'd end up with 100 discs that wouldn't play reliably in the field. Factor in the tech support costs associated with playback failures — but more importantly, the potential damage to your corporate image — and this approach quickly becomes scary.
Your alternative is to have the discs replicated like Hollywood movies. At 1,000-unit quantities, the cost for printed Blu-ray Discs is around $2,950 with a $500 setup charge, for a total of just less than $3,500 — about the same as a service bureau. Sure, it's a couple of thousand dollars more expensive than recording and printing the discs yourself (not taking into account the price of the printer/recorder), but the discs should play reliably on all Blu-ray players.
If you're at all familiar with Blu-ray production, you're probably muttering to yourself, “Yeah, but what about the $40 grand I'd need to spend on an authoring program that would allow me to replicate my disks?” Well, now you have several options outside of Sony Blu-print or Sonic Solutions Scenarist. First, you can rent a Blu-ray authoring program called DoStudio from NetBlender for $295 a month. Second, at NAB, Sonic Solutions announced that $299 authoring tool DVDitHD would support AACS and exporting to the Cutting Master Format, which should enable projects to be replicated.
Note that DVDitHD extends the DVD+R/-R feature set to DVD, and doesn't support Blu-ray features such as Blu-ray Java, overlays, or picture-in-picture. Still, this should be sufficient for most corporate or indie-type productions — especially if it means saving $40,000. Bottom line: The authoring side of the equation won't be cost-prohibitive in the short term, leaving the licensing side as the most significant cost that varies between replication and reproduction. So let's jump to the licensing side.
AACS is encryption technology that must be included on every replicated Blu-ray Disc. Fees and licenses are administered by the AACS Licensing Administrator, which you can find at aacsla.com.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that AACS has reportedly been hacked by at least one offshore software developer. Specifically, Antigua-based SlySoft currently sells a program called AnyDVD HD, which the company claims removes both AACS and BD+ copy protection — the latter an optional technology that's not mandatory for disc replication. Note that AACS can be updated, so the current hack will likely be overcome — although, of course, there's no guarantee that future AACS versions won't be hacked.
AACS has a fixed, one-time cost of $3,000, then a per-project cost of about $1,585. This covers the content certificate that actually contains the license, a setup fee, and some smaller additional fees. The $1,585 is a pass-through collected by the replicator and paid to the AACS, so you should definitely complain if the replicator wants to charge much more than $1,585.
AACS also charges 4 cents per disc, which the replicator will generally collect and pay through to the AACS. Some replicators charge an administration fee of 1 cent per disc or more to collect and pay those charges.
Now let's look at licensing fees paid to the Blu-ray Disc Association (see blu-raydisc.info). Briefly, the BDA is the consortium that developed all relevant Blu-ray standards, and it is charged with collecting and distributing license revenue to the technology contributors. These are the rules for content producers; I'll outline four usage scenarios below.
By way of background, as a content producer, the reason you sign a license with the Blu-ray Disc Association is to use its logos. If you don't have a license, you can't use the Blu-ray Disc logo on your disc or marketing materials unless you replicate your discs at a licensed replicator. Then you can't use the Region Playback Control logo that describes which regions the disc will play in. In addition, there is a free license that gives the right to use the Blu-ray Disc logo in packaging and marketing materials, but this doesn't enable use of the Region Playback Control logo (see blu-raydisc.info/license_app/lla_apps.php)
To explain, Blu-ray Discs can be encoded with a region code that restricts the region in which they can be played. Although the regions are different than with traditional DVDs, the principle is similar: Region-coded DVDs can only be played back in players sold for that region. Of course, you can also produce discs without a region code that can be played worldwide.
If you're producing discs with region-related playback restrictions, you'll need the Region Playback Control logo. To use that logo, you'll need to sign a Content Participant Agreement Light, which costs $500 per year and allows you to use both logos, but doesn't provide any third-party beneficiary rights (see blu-raydisc.info/license_app/cpalight_apps.php). In other words, if a licensed Blu-ray hardware or software vendor ships a deficient product that lets someone pirate your content, you can't sue it under its contracts with the BDA.
If you don't care about this, you can save $2,500 per year over the full CPA agreement, which costs $3,000 and gives you access to all logos and the third-party beneficiary rights I just described (blu-raydisc.info/license_app/cpa_apps.php).
With this as background, let's examine some usage scenarios. Suppose you're a corporation producing discs for inhouse or marketing use, as in the example above. You don't need a license from the BDA, but you can't use the Blu-ray logo in your marketing material unless you replicate at a licensed facility.
Similarly, if you're producing recordable Blu-ray Discs for inhouse use, you don't need a license, but technically you shouldn't use the Blu-ray logo in your marketing materials or packaging. If you're a wedding or event videographer providing recordable Blu-ray Discs to your client, it's the same answer — no license required, but technically you can't use the logo in your marketing materials or packaging.
Small producers selling Blu-ray Discs without region codes should sign the free license agreement so they can use the Blu-ray Disc logo on their discs and marketing materials. If you're selling globally with playback restricted by regions, you probably should opt for at least the CPA Light agreement. Obviously, if you're a major studio or TV station, you should sign the full agreement to ensure your rights against third parties.
These are the costs. Let's return to our replication vs. recording scenario. Overall, if you remove the license fees from the equation, many organizations would likely choose replication over recording when distributing even moderate quantities of discs to uncontrolled playback environments.
Here, it feels as though the BDA has done a better job matching costs with benefits than the AACS. Because most corporate or event videographers won't be producing discs that really benefit from or need the logo, the ability to produce discs without incurring a license charge is appropriate. On the other hand, most corporate producers probably don't care about copy protection; if anything, the ability to copy the discs would be a plus. Here, an up-front charge of $3,000 and per-project charge of $1,585 feel unwarranted, and they will likely push many considering replication back into the recordable camp.
From my perspective, the Blu-ray industry is responsible for the poor playback compatibility of Blu-ray recordable media. By requiring AACS on all replicated discs, it's forcing small and mid-size producers to choose between the recordable route, which will result in frequent playback incompatibility issues, and replicating their discs with a $3,000 up-front charge and per-disc $1,585 surcharge for a technology they don't want and that doesn't really work. It feels as though the Blu-ray industry should be able to find some middle ground that allows producers to opt out of AACS when they decide that copy protection isn't required for their projects.
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