Hollywood looks set to relax its grip on how buyers of Blu-ray and HD DVD discs can store and copy movies. Consumers could soon have the opportunity to make entirely legal backup copies for use on media servers and mobile devices, according to the body administering the copy-protection systems used on the new discs.

It's thought that 'managed copy' systems, which allow the buyer to make a limited number of backups of a title, could be in place by the end of this year, and consumers may then be able to buy 'premium editions' of movies allowing a set number of copies, or the standard version with no copying allowed.

The provision of such 'managed copying' has apparently been delayed by the distraction caused by hackers getting past the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) copy-management already included on high-definition discs: hardware manufacturers and the studios have to be sure that the finalised 'copy allowed' version is as pirate-proof as possible.

However, some commentators suggest that the big studios may be prepared to tale the risk of some unauthorised copying taking place, in return for the greater customer appeal they see in titles offering some degree of legalised copying. Even so, the studios are wary of anything that could enable a copying free-for-all, as this would alienate traditional means of distribution for movies, namely the video retail and rental chains.

Managed copying has always been part of the HD DVD specification, but to date hasn't been implemented for just those reasons. Now it seems AACS is working with some of the big Hollywood studios to get discs with limited copying rights available, and at least one studio hopes to be able to offer this in time for the peak end-of-year selling season.

The HD DVD specification means discs available in the format should support managed copying, and it's hoped Blu-ray hardware and software manufacturers can be signed up to offer similar facilities.

In the past, this copy protection issue was the subject of claim and counterclaim from the Blu-ray and HD DVD camps, as they tried to woo the Hollywood studios. Now it seems the whole world of file-sharing and multimedia computing is finally getting some grudging acceptance from the big studios – just as it has from record companies recently. Some sources suggest the studios might even welcome such a move, seeing it as a useful extra revenue stream. Downloaded movies may sell for less than their hard-copy equivalents, as they do on iTunes in the States for example, but the studios make big savings on replication, packaging and distribution costs.

According to reports from the States, AACS Licensing Adminsitrator, which controls the technology and is backed by IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Sony and Toshiba, as well as the Disney and Warner Bros studios, is in discussions with these members about licensing the copy management technology. It's thought such a facility could be applied retroactively to existing HD DVD titles, but not of course to the Blu-ray discs issued so far.

Using the internet connections provided by these players, and multimedia computers, it will be possible to monitor the content of files played, and decide whether they are legal or illegal copies. So it might be possible to buy a copy of a movie allowing, say, three copies, and then buy additional licences using the same model as the iTunes music stores, or indeed download lower-quality copies from such outlets.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the ongoing battle between AACS LA and the hackers will ensure that a sufficiently robust system can be put in place to ensure the studios embrace managed copying with total confidence.

More after the break