Copy protection—or bust

Movie studios, broadcast networks, consumer electronics manufacturers and technology companies have six weeks to come up with a firm scheme for protecting digital television content, or the government will do it for them. That was the ultimatum delivered by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) to an industry group last week.

"Everyone agreed that it was doable," said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson. "If anyone was shaking their head no, they were doing it in the hallway afterwards."

Attending the meeting were key members and staff of the committee as well as NCTA President Robert Sachs, MPAA President Jack Valenti, News Corp. Chief Technology Officer Andy Setos, CBS Executive Vice President Martin Franks and other industry executives.

Studios want copy-protection technology in all digital copying devices, including computers, before they are willing to release their high-end digital content to free TV. They are concerned that, without such protection, all their content will be pirated and distributed over the Internet, eliminating after-markets.

The industries two weeks ago released a report saying they had agreed to develop a copyright standard for digital television called the "broadcast flag."

While Valenti and MPAA acknowledged at the time that there were some dissenting views in the report, they pointed out that, of some 70 organizations that participated in the discussion, only 14 dissented on one or more issues.

"Implementation of the broadcast flag will permit digital TV stations to obtain high-value content and assure consumers a continued source of attractive, free, over-the-air programming without limiting the consumer's ability to make home copies," Valenti said in a statement. The latter is the major concern of the tech companies.

Consumer electronics manufacturers Thomson and Zenith last week sent letters to Tauzin indicating their support of the technology.

But Philips Consumer Electronics disagrees with the industry report. Last week, Larry Blanford, president and CEO of Philips Consumer Electronics North America, called on Congress to create a public-policy forum to settle the issue. "Essentially, this process allows a few studios and a small, private consortium of technology companies who want to control content to dictate how licenses will be granted," Blanford said.

Some consumer groups, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and, would prefer to see no copyright standard.

"A broadcast flag would just increase Hollywood's control over new technologies," says Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "They want to put a yoke around the neck of technology companies so they no longer have the freedom to build what they like. Instead, they have to build what Hollywood likes."

EFF last week asked Tauzin for more "inclusive" discussions before Congress goes forward with legislation.

On a broader front, consumer and technology groups are working hard to defeat a bill, introduced by Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), that would require the relevant industries to come up with technology solutions to digital copy-protection issues within 18 months of the bill's passage or face government intervention. The studios—particularly Disney and News Corp.—strongly back the bill, while consumer and technology groups call the bill a "digital Pearl Harbor."

Still, studios "have a right to protect their content," said Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology. "Every technological innovation has led to oodles of profit for the industry. It's not like the industry is going to come to an end, even though piracy is a legitimate problem."

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.