Skip to main content

Broadcast Flag Gets FCC Salute

Hollywood producers and broadcasters by the end of the month will get their wish for technology intended to stop illegal peer-to-peer swapping and streaming of digital TV shows over the Internet. The FCC plans to require that personal computers and digital storage devices be equipped to recognize a "broadcast flag" embedded in TV signals indicating the limits to which programming may be transmitted over a computer network.

The technology won't stop TV programs from being copied to a DVD or stored on a personal computer, but it would stop a user from sharing that file with another computer user.

The real question is whether the flag will fly. Opponents, namely computer and consumer-equipment manufacturers, say the codes will be easily broken. "We hope the FCC looks with a jaundiced eye at future requests to rework the standard," said Edward Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association. "We are quite certain the MPAA will be back to fix a broken technology with a new technology that will broken just as quickly."

Manufacturers charge that the flag will increase consumers' costs and could violate "fair-use" copy rights by blocking the unrestrained recording permitted for analog VHS tapes.

To Hollywood and broadcasters that want to air the latest movies in HDTV, there needs to be some immediate way to stem digital content's susceptibility to peer-to-peer swapping.

Chairman Michael Powell said the importance of safeguarding copyrights required the FCC to be "a little more forward-leaning" in claiming jurisdiction than when it approved a copy-protection regime for cable-ready DTV sets last month. Although there's no congressional mandate giving the FCC explicit authority over television tuners, he told reporters last week that he's comfortable that jurisdictional issues have been worked out.

The potential for peer-to-peer networks to swap digital programs without compensating copyright owners has generated fear of the massive piracy that the music industry has suffered from Napster and its progeny. One peer site, Kazaa, has 875 million files to be traded and 195 million users worldwide.

But high-definition content isn't likely to face an Internet piracy problem anytime soon: Limited network capacity won't support bandwidth-eating attack.

The rules won't stop the threat of downconverting digital content to analog and then reconverting to low-resolution digital for transmission. The Analog Digital Reconversion Group is working with MPAA to come up with a solution to the analog reconversion threat.