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Death to the “Broadcast Flag”

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Stalwart, omnipresent Farhad Manjoo calmly eviscerates Hollywood’s calls for a “broadcast flag” that would prohibit the transfer of digital television programs over the Internet, and that really entails telling electronics manufacturers how they must make their machines:

    On its Web site, the Motion Picture Association of America provides a handy FAQ to help people understand the “broadcast flag,” the latest copy-protection scheme that Hollywood wants the government to mandate. According to the MPAA, the idea is a near-perfect solution to a pernicious problem — the threat that the coming age of high-definition TV will be derailed by a few bad apples intent on trading episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” over the Internet.

    “What is the broadcast flag?” the MPAA site asks. To which it provides this simple answer: “The broadcast flag is a sequence of digital bits embedded in a television program that signals that the program must be protected from unauthorized redistribution. It does not distort the viewed picture in any way. Implementation of this 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 consumers’ ability to make personal copies.”

    ….The MPAA is counting on your apathy. It’s precisely because the flag seems, on the surface, so innocuous that the studios are having an easy time pushing it to regulators in Washington. And the regulators are biting: According to close observers of the process, the Federal Communications Commission will soon adopt a rule requiring all technologies capable of receiving digital TV signals — everything from HDTV sets to DVD players to general-purpose PCs — to recognize and protect flagged TV shows.

    If adopted, such a rule is sure to cause a great deal of hand wringing in the PC industry, which is, increasingly, counting on the convergence between entertainment and computing to push sales. The last thing that hardware manufacturers want is for Hollywood to be able to legislate how computers are put together. According to people familiar with the rule the FCC is pondering, the broadcast flag would force all computer companies to make a stark choice: Either add digital television capabilities to their machines and then, as some critics of Hollywood say, “weld the hood shut,” making sure that everything else in the PC — the DVD recorder, the hard drive — is sealed with copy-protection? Or stay away from HDTV altogether, sacrificing sales?

    ….American television — which the MPAA extols as “a unique resource, justly cherished by millions of Americans,” and “a major United States export that is tremendously important … to our prestige in the world,” a characterization that might give you new, patriotic appreciation for something like “Joe Millionaire” — would be at grave risk in a world where everyone is a potential pirate. So, in order to save TV from its viewers, the MPAA wants to lock it down. Under the MPAA’s ideal rule, high-definition signals broadcast over the air would not be encrypted, meaning that any digital TV could access them; but if a signal is tagged with the broadcast flag, the device receiving the signal would be required to secure the content by implementing a copy-protection technology approved by the FCC.

    ….But there are several holes in the MPAA’s thesis. First, the critics say, it’s not clear that trading high-definition TV shows will ever become a national pastime — the files are enormous, and even people with seemingly endless hard drive space and broadband capacity will find HDTV shows too big to work with. If the TV trade ever becomes as popular as the music trade, traders will likely choose lower-quality files to pass around the network — and the broadcast flag does nothing to combat trading such files. The second argument the critics make is more subtle: Even if the TV trade ever took off, why should we assume that it will hurt — rather than help — Hollywood’s bottom line? The MPAA, after all, is the group that predicted that no good could come from the VCR; but the home video market now accounts for more than half of movie studios’ revenues. Why should anyone believe the MPAA when it says that trading will lead to TV’s ruin?

    In its comments to the FCC, the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a computer-industry trade group, included a chart showing how long it would take to transfer high-definition television shows over a high-speed connection. On a T1 line — faster than most DSL or cable modem connections — a one-hour, HDTV-quality show would take 18 hours to download.

    ….And, as the EFF’s von Lohmann explained, thousands of digital televisions have already been sold, and these TVs will completely ignore the broadcast flag — and, consequently, these sets can send pure digital signals to be captured on a PC. Because of the existence of these TVs, the broadcast flag is, “by its own terms, completely useless,” von Lohmann says. “It’s not just a little useless, it’s absolutely and completely useless, and it should take somebody only about 30 seconds to figure that out. All it takes is any one of those [legacy TVs] to upload a file to a file-sharing network, and we’re done, game over.”

    ….If you’re the kind of fan willing to spend days or weeks downloading episodes of your favorite program, chances are that you’re also the kind of person who might buy or rent an entire season of the show on DVD. It’s possible that, in an age of easily traded TV shows, you’ll decline to buy the boxed set if you can get the shows for free — but isn’t it possible, too, that the traded shows will somehow convince you to buy the boxed set or rent more DVDs or watch more reruns?

It won’t work, it will put large pointless stumbling blocks in the way of electronic innovation, and there isn’t a problem in the first place – gee, think it’s a good idea?

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