Raising the flag on copy protection

Movie studios, television networks, computer-chip makers, software companies and consumer electronics manufacturers have agreed that digital television programs must be protected from being freely distributed over the Internet. Next stop: Capitol Hill.

Last week, the Broadcast Discussion Working Group (BDWG), a gathering of approximately 230 executives, released a final report detailing their consensus that a technology called the "broadcast flag" should be used to alert copying devices—such as digital TV recorders and computers—that digital TV programs cannot be copied and redistributed over the Internet. The industries have been fighting for years over whether to protect broadcast TV from Internet distribution and, if so, then how to do it. The report is the "if so." The "how to do it" remains to be resolved.

During manufacture, broadcast-flag technology can be inserted into copying devices, but consumer electronics and computer makers must agree to put it there. Congress or the FCC will have to mandate the implementation once the industries get closer to consensus on the details.

The BDWG's parent, the Copyright Protection Technical Working Group, approved the report last Wednesday. "Implementation of this plan is going to allow TV stations to get high-value content," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, although it could be years before the report yields a standard that gets government approval.

Though the group terms the report "final," various companies' viewpoints differ enough that debate over how to copy-protect digital TV appears far from over.

"There are a lot of dissenting opinions," says Ken Johnson, spokesman for House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.). "We were led to believe that more progress had been made toward a compromise. Certainly, it will be a focal point of our discussions when we hold the next round of digital roundtable meetings." It is scheduled for June 11, Johnson said, and will focus on copyright protection and cable compatibility.

Several industry reps credited Congress, specifically Tauzin and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), for pressuring the industry to work on this issue. While Tauzin has been holding a series of private roundtable meetings, Hollings has introduced legislation giving the industries 18 months to come up with a solution or face government intervention.

"The success on the broadcast-flag issue is a tribute to Sen. Hollings and Congressman Tauzin," said Preston Padden, Disney's top lobbyist. Disney, via Padden, has been pushing hard for such an agreement.

Other industries and consumer advocates are less sanguine. "The report dramatically erodes fair-use rights," said Joe Kraus, co-founder, DigitalConsumer.org. "The entertainment industry should not be allowed to sit behind closed doors and shut out consumers and the media while they set standards."

Said Ed Black, president, Computer & Communications Industry Association, "Our legislators decided long ago, despite all the misery they cause, ordinary people can be trusted with handguns, knives, alcohol and explosives. Hollywood says people should go to jail if they use a simple consumer device that lets them decide what they should do with TV recordings they make."

Although consumer electronics manufacturers signed on to the report, that industry listed several points of dispute, notably fears that content providers will use any agreement on copy-protection to limit consumers' copying rights.

The movie studios deny they're limiting fair-use rights. "Other than necessarily requiring that DTV content continue to be protected against unauthorized redistribution ... the proposed technical solution does not interfere with the ability of consumers to both make copies of DTV content and to exchange such content among devices connected within a digital home network," the report says.

The industries plan a group to determine the legislation or regulation they need to implement a copy-protection solution.

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.