Cinema has long played a game of tag with intellectual property. In the 70’s and 80’s, exhibitors embraced the patented technologies that delivered significantly improved sound in their auditoriums. In the 90’s, intellectual property in cinema sound technologies created a confusing array of digital sound delivery methods, much to the displeasure of the exhibitors who invested in them, and the distributors who had to license them. In the 2000’s, the advent of digital cinema promised to mitigate the intellectual property woes by establishing an IP-free baseline for the cinema of the day. But those days have now passed, and the industry has yet to to come to grips as to whether cinema is to be special, strongly differentiated from the home, or simply the giant screen version of home entertainment.
The most warmly embraced introduction of patented technology in cinema was in the 70’s, with Dolby’s patented A-type noise reduction. Dolby used its technology to improve a sound matrixing technology of its own design based on two patents not of Dolby origin. The combination of intellectual properties became Dolby Stereo, enabling distributors to inexpensively deliver 4-channel sound to a very wide footprint of cinemas. Audiences flocked to the cinema, and exhibitors appreciated the new revenue that Dolby enabled. The only complaints heard about Dolby technology in those days was from manufacturers who attempted to compete, and independent directors who wanted what Dolby had to offer, but didn’t like the license fees.
Things got messy in the 90’s when digital sound for film became the rage. Up to five competing formats were introduced, which only narrowed to three. At first, technology did not allow all three formats to co-exist on one film print, creating multiple inventory problems for distributors, but this problem was eventually solved. The burden on distributors was also minimized as all three formats could utilize the same 5.1 mix. (Sony offered an extended 7.1 format, but very few movies took advantage of it.) The catchy feature of 5.1 digital sound was stereo surround, previously only available with 70mm prints. However, the incremental benefit of digital sound in the 90’s to exhibitors, distributors, and the audience was arguably less than that from the introduction of Dolby Stereo in the 70’s. Had it been otherwise, exhibitors would likely have felt better about the wash of intellectual property they were thrust in.
Fast forward to today, and two incompatible, intellectual-property-laden formats are now being sold to exhibitors: Dolby Atmos and Barco’s Auro-3D. A third format, DTS’s MDA, has been proposed, but is unlikely to go far. MDA is only backed by companies that historically set aside little or no R&D budget for cinema sound, and DTS itself is refrained from re-entering the cinema market by its board of directors. Assuming both formats were on equal footing (which they aren’t), the combination manages to maximize the pain felt by exhibitors and distributors. The incompatibility of the underlying sound format delivered by each of these technologies distinguishes today’s dilemma from the 5.1 compatibility of differing formats in the 90’s. Each of today’s formats enforces a different speaker layout. Each format requires the creation of a different mix.
Equally wearisome with today’s scenario is that, as in the 90’s, the benefit to audiences is not so pronounced as to create a readily recognizable improvement in sound. It takes an enthusiastic mix as well as significant marketing to convince audiences of the benefit. The most eye-opening part is that the standardization of immersive sound distributions will not prevent Dolby and Barco/Auro from incorporating their respective intellectual properties in the distribution. Only Dolby Atmos systems will be able to faithfully reproduce the Atmos mix, and only Barco Auro-3D systems will be able to faithfully reproduce the Auro-3D mix. Dolby has been honest about this, Barco much less so. While an immersive sound standard might make sense to politicians, it will do little to change things for distributors and exhibitors.
All of this begs the question as to whether the industry would be better off if it were to shun intellectual property in cinema sound? The answer clearly is no, for several reasons. The first is that new technology in sound will not sell itself. Audiences need to be told that they will experience something special. Dolby, and to a lesser extent, Barco, have that going for them. They each recognize the need to sell to the audience. MDA, backed by no one with a marketing budget, doesn’t stand a chance in this regard. A second reason is that audiences are attracted to brands, and brands generally require intellectual property to survive. IMAX is a brand well recognized by audiences, and claims intellectual property in its auditorium designs, as well as its trademark. Dolby’s claim to intellectual property and trademarks is well known. Barco is less prominent in this regard, but Auro has intellectual property (which it exclusively licenses to Barco) and trademarks, albeit lesser known. MDA, once again, scores a big zero.
But intellectual property in a competitive environment doesn’t come without pain. The industry is unlikely to long embrace two intellectual-property-driven immersive sound formats. How gently the loser concedes, and its supporters recover, will remain to be seen.