Critics Take Shots at Copy-Protection Plan

Broadcasters might not have expected a ringing endorsement for their preferred digital copy-protection technology, but, last week, they were surprised by the thunder of nearly universal skepticism.

Except for broadcasters’ Hollywood allies, nearly all media and tech companies weighing in on possible copy-protection measures for digital over-the-air TV complained that the “broadcast flag” won’t work, isn’t needed or can’t be imposed without approval by the U.S. Copyright Office or Congress.

Individual protests

The hostile reaction isn’t going over well with broadcasters. Viacom-owned CBS even threatened to cease all high-definition programming if the flag is not adopted.

Protests against the flag from more than 4,000 individuals were spurred by activist groups such as Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Center for Digital Democracy.

The broadcast flag, aimed at limiting unauthorized distribution of content, was developed by the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group, whose members include major broadcast networks, the Motion Picture Association of American, the National Association of Broadcasters, station groups, and artists and actors unions.

The flag, which all digital recording and storage devices might be required to recognize, would be embedded in excess spectrum separate from the video programming and would tell devices how many times, if any, a user may copy a program for use outside personal video equipment.

Broadcasters and Hollywood say the regime is needed because producers of movies and other high-value programming won’t allow their content on free TV unless some copy restriction prevents unauthorized streaming or downloads.

Despite the barrage of complaints, supporters noted that 23 organizations signed on to the main filing in support of the idea. “We got people signed on who haven’t agreed with each other in a decade,” said Preston Padden, Disney’s Washington chief and an aggressive proponent of the flag.

But others contend that mandating copy- protection measures would increase consumers’ costs and do little to stop illegal Internet distribution.

“While there is not yet persuasive evidence of harm from redistribution by ordinary consumers, there are clear in- dications that a broadcast-flag regime could have ancillary consequences” for them, wrote Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association and chairman of the Home Recording Rights Coalition.

Against the flag

According to the coalition, which includes makers of home recording devices, the threat of illegal Internet distribution arises long before a movie is cleared for broadcast television. In addition, few residential users, even those with cable modems, have the Internet capacity to upload movies and other bandwidth-draining content to the Internet.

In the meantime, the coalition argued, because rules for duplicating flagged content remain sketchy, preservation of the well-established right to unfettered home recording can’t be guaranteed. TiVo, the maker of a personal video recorder that stores digital copies of programs, urged the FCC to make clear that no copy protections would be placed on devices meant for a viewer’s personal use. TiVo also says its security measures are stronger than the flag.

Silicon Valley types, though acknowledging a need for a copy-protection regime, also complained.

“Implementation is made difficult by the complex and ever-evolving nature of the technologies,” said the IT Coalition, which includes Apple, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Motorola. It said the FCC should permit broadcasters to encrypt DTV signals at the transmission site.

The National Music Publisher’s Association urged the FCC not to impose a broadcast copy-protection regime without considering how it would mesh with protections for other digital media, such as music recordings.

LOAD-DATE: December 18, 2002