TV Limits Copies

Illustrations by Joe Zeff.
Illustration: Joe Zeff
[Editor's note: After we went to press, the groups challenging the FCC's broadcast flag in federal court won their case. For details on the ruling, please see "FCC's Broadcast Flag Overturned."]

Aiming to prevent mass piracy of digital TV programs, especially over the Internet, the Federal Communications Commission has mandated a new copy-protection scheme called the "broadcast flag." The FCC's ruling, which goes into effect this July, lets you make a backup copy of flagged shows, but no further copies.

The flag will be attached to "over the air" digital content--both network and local station programs, such as movies or prime-time series on NBC. Any device with a digital TV tuner can grab that content, whether it comes over an antenna or through a cable or satellite set-top box. The flag, basically a piece of code, will travel with any show that the broadcaster wants to protect.

In July, new consumer electronics devices--including tuner cards for computers--that receive digital TV signals must ship with the ability to recognize the flag and to respect its copy restrictions.

Without the flag's protection, television networks argue, Hollywood won't license its blockbusters to them as broadcasts go digital. Unlike copies made on analog media, a digital copy retains the quality of the original, whether it's a first-generation copy or a thousandth-; digital copies are also simpler to make and far easier to distribute, as peer-to-peer networks have shown.

Media companies hope the flag will help alleviate the content piracy problem, which costs the industry about $3.5 billion each year, according to the Motion Picture Association of America's calculations.

A legacy clause will let current products continue to work as usual, ignoring the flag. But questions about how future DVD technologies will allow you to make copies of shows and whether these technologies will interoperate remain unsettled.

At press time, several consumer groups were attempting to block the FCC plan in court (see "Fighting FCC's Copy Controls.") Nevertheless, broadcast flag-compliant devices are rolling off production lines now.

Broadcast Flag: The Basics

Illustrations by Joe Zeff.
Illustration: Joe Zeff
In July broadcasters can begin sending digital TV signals with a "flag"--a piece of code that restricts copying--to prevent mass piracy of TV shows or movies. New devices that receive over-the-air digital TV signals, like some HDTV sets and tuner cards, must recognize the rules. Here's what you need to know.
  1. The flag affects digital content from broadcast networks like ABC, not cable networks like HBO (which have other content protection). But cable and satellite boxes must respect the flag on any show.
  2. A legacy clause lets your existing products continue to work as usual.
  3. VCRs won't change, since they are analog devices.
  4. Today's TiVo devices won't change, but the next-generation HD TiVo will add encryption technology. The same is true for other hard disk-based recorders.
  5. Recordable DVD devices will change when high-definition blue-laser recorders hit the U.S. market in 2006.
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