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    21 February, 2005

    US debates TV download prevention

    I blogged on Friday about the news that the UK is the home of illegal TV programme downloading. Today the New York Times reports on a court case about to start in Washington on this very issue:

    The debate will be presented in oral arguments tomorrow before the District of Columbia Circuit for the United States Court of Appeals in a lawsuit brought by Public Knowledge and others against the F.C.C., challenging a new regulation that is intended to prevent such bleeding of television content onto the Internet.

    "This is about whether the F.C.C. is going to become the Federal Computer Commission and the Federal Copyright Commission," said Gigi B. Sohn, the co-founder and president of Public Knowledge. "The F.C.C. does not have the power to tell technology manufacturers how to build their machines."

    All sides agree that the new rule would do just that in attempting to limit unauthorized sharing of digital broadcast content over the Internet. The rule would require that as of July 1, all new consumer electronics equipment capable of receiving over-the-air digital signals - from digital televisions to computers equipped with TV tuner cards - must include technology that will recognize a "broadcast flag."

    That flag is simply a marker of sorts, a packet of bits embedded in a digital television broadcast stream that essentially carries the message "this stream is to be protected." In addition to recognizing that message, new equipment must include technology that will prevent the content from being distributed to other devices unless they, too, are flag-compliant.

    The story suggests that programme-makers will slow down the drive towards digital TV by refusing to make digital programmes in order to protect their copyright. They will therefore prevent the freeing up of the old analogue spectrum, costing the US Treasury billions in lost revenues that would be obtained if the spectrum were auctioned. Alternatively, they would make digital programmes but only for encrypted services.

    We are further down the path of digital TV here. Since US programmes are available in digital format on UK channels and can be recorded digitally and uploaded to the Internet, it seems unlikely that piracy can be headed off in the way that the programme-makers are suggesting. As bandwidth and compression technologies develop, I suspect the only real solution will be effective provision by prgramme-makers for legal downloading of digital TV content. The music industry took too long to realise that.

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    Promoted by Leighton Andrews AM, National Assembly for Wales, Cardiff CF99 1NA.

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