• United States

Protecting against the Internet

Nov 17, 20033 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsGovernmentIntellectual Property

The FCC earlier this month succumbed to the power of the movie industry and attempted to solve a problem that does not yet exist. In doing so, the commission tried to balance the rights of consumers and those of copyright holders, but came up short from the consumers’ point of view.

On Nov. 4, the FCC issued a “report and order” regarding “Digital Broadcast Content Provision.” The document requires that consumer electronics that can receive TV signals broadcast “over the air” (as opposed to distributed via cable or satellite) be able to detect the presence of a marker, or broadcast flag, which can be included in a TV program. If a marker is detected, a full-resolution copy of the program can be sent only to other devices that have an approved copy-protection system.

The marker the FCC selected is defined in a standard developed by the Advanced Television Systems Committee called “ATSC A/65: Program and System Information Protocol for Terrestrial Broadcast and Cable.” This standard defines the way that broadcasters must include program name and content information in TV broadcasts.

It also defines a way to include a “redistribution control” parameter, which is what the FCC has decided to require that TV receivers – including PCs with TV tuner cards – pay attention to (see page 79 of the ATSC standard for details). Broadcasters get to decide if they want to include the broadcast flag in any particular program.

The FCC did not bar broadcasters from using the flag on public information broadcasts such as the State of the Union speech (for unconvincing reasons). Nor did the commission limit what broadcasters could do with any information on a user’s viewing habits they might learn from employing a copy-protection system (for no reason I can find).

The FCC’s order is not nearly as bad as the movie industry wanted it to be, but it’s bad enough. There is no requirement that all computing devices be programmed so they recognize flags and constructed in a way that makes it impossible to program around them.

But if you buy a new digital TV tuner after June 2005, the FCC requirement means that you won’t be able to use your Tivo or PC to record a full-resolution digital copy of a protected show to watch later. However, you will be able to record an analog copy or a low-resolution digital one.any information on a user’s viewing habits they might learn from employing a copy-protection system (for no reason I can find).

The FCC says its aim is not to restrict the user’s ability to record programs or make local copies, but just to restrict the ability of users to share programs over the Internet. The commission is, at best, being disingenuous when it makes this claim, because you won’t be able to record programs using your existing equipment and a new receiver when this order goes into effect.

There was no actual need for the FCC to issue this order now, as we are years away from being able to transfer full-resolution video files to broadband-connected Internet users. Memo to FCC: It’s possible to make rules when they are actually needed and to listen to consumers.

Disclaimer: As a rule, Harvard waits at least until a rule is needed before starting to consider a problem, but the above whine is mine.