A move to help TV viewers avoid restrictions on digital broadcast signals scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2005 has been launched by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
The campaign is targeted at something called the “Broadcast Flag,” a digital rights management scheme that the EFF maintains will stop viewers from making digital copies of over-the-air television shows and sharing them with others.
What’s more, the EFF noted in a statement, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is requiring that once the scheme, which was approved last November, goes into effect, all personal video recorders — devices like TiVo, which record TV programming on a hard drive — will have to be “flag compliant” and “robust” against user modification.
“Broadcast television has always been free and unencrypted,” EFF Staff Attorney Wendy Seltzer told TechNewsWorld. “Historically, we’ve been able to do whatever we want with that signal within the limits of copyright law.”
This is going beyond the limits of copyright law, she said. “It’s saying you can’t record from your digital television and play it back on another machine if Hollywood says so.”
When it adopted the Broadcast Flag scheme, the FCC averred that it was needed to foster the transition from analog to digital broadcast television and “forestall potential harm to the viability of free, over-the-air broadcasting in the digital age.”
Threat to Viability
“Because broadcast TV is transmitted ‘in the clear,’ it is more susceptible than encrypted cable or satellite programming to being captured and retransmitted via the Internet,” FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell explained in a statement.
“The widespread redistribution of broadcast TV content on the Internet would unnecessarily drive high-value programming to more secure delivery platforms.” he said. “The losers would be the 40 million Americans who rely exclusively on free over-the-air TV.”
The FCC said in a statement that a consumers’ ability to make digital copies will not be affected by the scheme.
“The broadcast flag seeks only to prevent mass distribution over the Internet,” it contended. It also avowed that implementation of the broadcast flag will not require consumers to purchase any new equipment.
The flag will, for the most part, be unobtrusive to consumers.
Rube Goldberg Mechanism
“The flag itself doesn’t do anything,” observed Mike Godwin, legal director for Public Knowledge in Washington, D.C., which bills itself as a “public-interest advocacy organization dedicated ensuring that U.S. intellectual property law and policy reflect the ‘cultural bargain’ intended by the framers of the Constitution.”
“But if you got a flag-compliant television, it would pass off content to devices that could swear that they’re constructed in ways that don’t allow the content to leak out,” he told TechNewsWorld. “If that sounds Rube Goldberg, it’s because it is.”
There are some apparent holes in the Broadcast Flag scheme.
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For example, even TVs that comply with the standard will have analog outputs. “If you have an analog device, you can capture the programming and digitize it without restriction,” Godwin explained.
Moreover, devices produced before the scheme takes effect will continue to work after its implementation. “There will be a brisk eBay market for unrestricted broadcast televisions,” Godwin predicted.
In that vein, the DTV Liberation project is putting together a “cookbook” to help people obtain and install noncompliant digital TV tuners before the FCC regulations take effect.
Asked if cobbling together a tuner setup from a cookbook might be too much to ask of most couch potatoes, Seltzer replied, “I’m a lawyer and I put one together. We think it is something that can be made doable for at least the average technologically minded person.”
In addition to the liberation project, EFF and Public Knowledge have also filed a lawsuit to block the implementation of the Broadcast Flag rules.
“We’re arguing that the FCC doesn’t have jurisdiction to make this rule,” Seltzer said.
“They’re not regulating broadcasting,” Godwin added. “They’re regulating what receivers do. The commission can’t do that unless Congress gives them the power to do that,” he argued.