Audio/Video - Converting vs. Altering

When dealing with audio and video files, I have always felt that there is fine line in dealing with the various media formats in the eDiscovery world.  In my experience, I often encounter almost a weekly issue with non-standard audio/video formats.  It may be from a surveillance camera in a convenience store or security camera from a bank.  Many times, the security company used by these institutions will capture audio/video with their own third-party software.  I'm sure they have their reasons but it certainly creates a headache for us when we try to use this for litigation.

So what do you do when the audio/video files come into your office?  

First - before you do anything to the audio/video files - PRESERVE THE ORIGINAL.  Make a copy of the original to another location that you can work with.  

Next, learn how to use the third-party player and get familiar with the features you will need to cull down the data to what you are looking for.  Usually you can go to the software vendor’s website and download user manuals or find a knowledge base.  

One of the first things that I look for in the software is an option to export the media to another format. Sometimes you will need another version of the software to access exporting features.  

So what format should you export to?  For audio, look for options to export to .wav or .mp3.  For video, look for .wmv or .avi.  Lastly, try any format the export function allows you to export.

So, is the exporting or converting the audio/video file considered altering the evidence? 

It depends on how you are going to use it.  If you plan to produce it in Discovery, you need to communicate this with the other side.  Do they want the converted format, the original format or both?  In the spirit of cooperation, I have usually provided both if possible.  If you export the audio/video format within the third-party software, you should be okay with that. However, if you take the original file format and try to convert it using other software, you could alter the file to degrade the quality.  In any event, be sure to document the process you use when converting the original file format in case you are called to testify about it.  

As you can see, it has the potential to be tricky.  

So why bother to convert the audio/video file format anyway?  When culling through the audio or video recordings, you aren’t usually going to play the entirety since you will have a lot of stuff that won't even be relevant.  You will want to produce clips from the original file to play in court.  You will also want the clips to be in a format that the jury can easily play as well.  

So here are some general thoughts about converting vs. altering:

#1 - Always try to use the export function in the original software if possible.

#2 - Stay with the basics.  Most of us do not have Hollywood movie studio equipment to use.  If exporting is not possible, use what you have.

#3 - Adjusting the volume is okay.  Eliminating background noises or enhancing media in any way might cross the line into altering.  Always disclose this with the other party.

I have also found some other good sources for audio/video file formats:

Click here for more details about video file formats. This dude has a pretty good description of video file formats which is easy to understand.  He also has one for audio file formats.

Finally, I would highly recommend that you have a computer that is only used for working with A/V files.  Working with and editing audio and video can take up a lot of memory and storage.  Having a PC dedicated to this would a good idea.


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