Hollywood vs. Your PC: Round 2
Digital TV Behind Gates
The battle over rights in the digital TV arena is already well under way. By March 1, 2007, according to Federal Communications Commission rules, all new TV devices (tuners, VCRs, DVRs, and set-top boxes) for sale in the United States must be capable of receiving digital TV signals. For the past few years, media conglomerates have been scrambling to keep their expensively produced, highly profitable digital content from drifting all over the Net. But the protections they've devised may keep viewers from doing things they are accustomed to doing--such as recording, time-shifting, and sharing shows.
In 2003, the FCC ruled that over-the-air digital TV shows must carry an 8-bit "flag" that broadcasters could use to limit how viewers recorded such programs; all TV gear would have had to recognize this flag. But last May, a federal court struck down the broadcast flag, ruling that the FCC had exceeded its authority. Flag supporters have tried to persuade Congress to authorize the flag; that has yet to happen.
The MPAA's Hunt says such controls are necessary. "If content owners have no assurance there will be some form of protection from redistributing digital TV, that high-value content normally provided to broadcasters would move into the pay-TV world," he says. That could mean networks like ABC and NBC might no longer get the rights to show Star Wars or Harry Potter movies, for example.
Meanwhile, TiVo owners recently got a taste of what life under such a flag might be like. Last September the popular DVR service changed how it responded to the Macrovision copy protection built into pay-per-view and video-on-demand content. For the first time, content owners could prevent viewers from recording PPV and VOD shows on a DVR. They could also require deletion of shows from the recorder after a certain period. TiVo already prevented viewers from burning protected content to DVDs or using the TiVoToGo service to transfer it to a PC.
Fred von Lohman, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, says that this change is a classic case of content owners taking away features consumers have paid for.
"Two years ago the TiVo you bought did one thing, and now suddenly it does something different," he says. "Despite the fact we're buying more media than ever before, products are treating us more and more like pirates each day."
But TiVo VP of product marketing Jim Denney says the changes have had little impact on the vast majority of TiVo users.
More restrictions may be on the way for home recording. At press time, sponsors had just introduced the Digital Content Security Act (HR 4569) in the House. This bill would close the "analog hole" by requiring devices that allow users to make digital copies from analog sources to employ copy protection technology. If the analog hole were closed, protected shows could carry signals that prevented them from being copied by any device at all, or could limit copies and prohibit them from being digitally redistributed, or could restrict viewers' time-shifting abilities to within 90 minutes after a broadcast.
Next-generation home recording via high-capacity blue-laser DVD technology promises a little more freedom but also additional restrictions. Both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs (the two major blue-laser DVD formats) will carry a digital watermark that will let players identify illegally copied discs and prevent playback of the content. Backers of both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats have announced their support for "mandatory managed copies," which will allow home users to make a single copy of their high-definition discs and share them across a home network--something that consumers can't legally do with today's commercial DVDs.