Squaring Off On 'Analog Hole'

After years of debate, the TV industry has a deal that will help fight a piracy problem that could plague producers in the future: illegal digital-to-digital copying and distribution of high-resolution, high-definition content. Now the industry can concentrate on fighting today's piracy problem: digital duplication of low-resolution analog programming.

Disputes over how to stop illegal copying of HDTV have helped stall the manufacture of cable-ready sets and discouraged broadcasts of HDTV movies. But HD content isn't likely to face an Internet piracy problem anytime soon; the network capacity just isn't there to support a widespread bandwidth-eating attack.

Despite the lack of an imminent threat, copy-protection standards governing HD—expected to get government approval soon—have been a priority for cable operators and set manufacturers. Without them, no one will be able to make cable-compatible "plug-and-play" sets that that work without need for a separate converter box.

Still, the standards won't solve the biggest piracy problem facing the industry today: copying digital content through old analog outputs, then reconverting it to digital.

Last week, the Motion Picture Association of America put Washington on notice that analog reconversion should now be the top priority of the digital transition.

"Because of the continued availability of unprotected analog connections permitted under this agreement, it fails to achieve meaningful protection of digital content," MPAA told the FCC in March 28 comments on last December's cable/ set-maker plug-and-play agreement, which includes requirements for some FCC rules.

This week, an interindustry task force, the Analog Digital Reconversion Group, will ask MPAA to spell out which specific types of illegal copying should be prevented.

"Are there ways to put speed bumps in the road to discourage reconversion?" asks James Burger, a Washington attorney representing Silicon Valley companies. His clients oppose expensive copy-protection measures for PCs. "We think there may be, but solving reconversion should not be turned into a research-and-development project."

Closing the so-called "analog hole" was not a mission of the plug-and-play deal, so MPAA's protests are not viewed as a threat to derail the FCC rules, particularly given the pressure the FCC is under to speed the transition to DTV. Instead, they are viewed as a not-so-subtle suggestion as to what the next priority should be.

That's okay with Robert Schwartz, who represents the Home Recording Rights Coalition, whose members include both consumers and electronic-equipment companies. "We've recognized this as a potential problem since at least 1998, and we're open to a solution," he said. Like Burger, he insists that MPAA list specific copying practices to be prevented but wants it to drop an open-ended prohibition aimed at stopping any conceivable copying practice that could be devised in the future.

Hollywood's reservations may be getting the most attention, but others have complaints, too. Starz Entertainment, the Liberty Media-owned pay-channel network, wants the FCC to specify that viewers of subscription movie channels are entitled to duplicate any program once to view when convenient. Starz Chairman John Sie said the movie channels are already entitled to that and wording to the contrary in the cable/consumer-equipment agreement is "a little blip that nobody paid attention to."

Sie blamed movie channels' inclusion in the "copy never" category on a failure to differentiate between "subscription video-on-demand," a term sometimes used for movie channels like Starz in which viewers have no choice in viewing times or the programs available, and conventional pay-per-view.

But others say Sie is trying to get government help in negotiations with Hollywood.

HD-copy protections are one component of the broader plug-and-play deal, which also sets technical standards for cable-ready DTV sets.

To put the agreement in place, the FCC must require cable operators to transmit video signals that can be decoded by any set that earns the cable-ready label. Also, equipment makers would be forced to build sets to the appropriate specs for the right to label products as cable-ready. The mandate would include connections that obey copy-protection codes governing how many times, if any, a program may be copied. The FCC is also considering making the signal-encoding rules apply to satellite providers.

Also voicing complaints were satellite-TV providers, who argue they shouldn't be required to follow the same encoding rules as cable systems, and broadcast trade groups miffed that cable-ready sets aren't required to include over-the-air digital tuners.