Let’s Burn The Flag

I trust the top headline got your attention. For the record, I wouldn?t dream of doing violence to the stars and stripes. However another flag, the broadcast flag, is in the news again with the Federal Communications Commission?s announcement that it has approved 13 different ways of implementing the copy protection technology.

Actually, isn?t the term ?copy protection? a bit vague? Whom does it protect? Not the consumer. The term ?copyright protection? comes a bit closer to the truth though the term ?digital rights management??copyright protection for the era of zeroes and ones?is becoming trendier. Perhaps we should just call a spade a spade and call it ?anti-copying? technology.

Anyhow, the broadcast flag got started as a way of preventing broadcast television programming from finding its way into the file-sharing moshpit. The assumption is that what flies through the airwaves must not be allowed to fly through the Internet. The controversial solution is to embed a code, or flag, in digital TV programming to prevent unauthorized use.

Of course this doesn?t make a bit of sense. Broadcast television programming, digital or otherwise, is free and it?s delivered over the public airwaves?which, as I?ve pointed out in a past column, are owned by you and me. Under the Supreme Court?s 1984 Betamax Decision, broadcast TV programs may be recorded for time-shifting purposes and personal use in general. File sharing of these programs seems a logical extension of that court-sanctioned right.

Nonetheless the entertainment industry is waging an indiscriminate war against file sharing in all its forms and has jawboned the government and the consumer electronics industry into accepting the broadcast flag. That?s the bad news.

The good news is that there?s some wiggle room here. Each of these 13 FCC-approved ?digital output technologies and recording methods? is designed to fit a specific type of product or technology?something the electronics industry would like you to buy?so various players have opened up various loopholes for various products.

For instance, JVC, the developer of the D-VHS VCR, lets you hook up two of these digital-recording products and dub flagged programming from one to the other. The kinds of programming you might legally dub would include broadcast TV or something you shot with your camcorder. To protect movie copyrights, JVC has built various kinds of anti-copying technology into D-VHS, but they won?t be triggered unless you try to do something you know you shouldn?t do, like dub a commercial copy of a movie.

Philips and Hewlett-Packard got approval for another form of flag compliance that would affect their Vidi recordable-DVD format. This scheme would bind content to the physical medium. In other words, you could copy flag-encoded material with a Vidi drive, but someone else?s Vidi drive couldn?t copy the copy. That one-generation-only loophole is the same one used by the Serial Copy Management System (or SCMS, pronounced ?scums?), which affects black-box CD-R decks.

What about networking? Thomson, better known for its RCA brandname, provides a flexible implementation of the flag in its SmartRight networking system. Flagged content is encoded as a ?private copy? that may be shared over a ?private personal network,? which might include up to 10 displays, and an unlimited number of storage devices, and could even extend to a second home, office, or boat.

 In Microsoft?s Windows Media Digital Rights Management Technology, the idea is to limit streaming and storage devices with ?proximity controls? that cap the number of milliseconds the signal may travel. You could probably fling stuff to just about any corner of your home but wouldn?t be able to send it down the street.

You get the idea. Manufacturers are willing to accept some degree of copyright protection, but are not willing to give away all your fair-use rights, because they need you to buy their products. They?re looking for a compromise you?ll accept. If you want to know what a prospective purchase is capable?and not capable?of, you?ll have to read every word of reviews written by people like, say, oh, myself.

For the libertarians of the electronics world the best copyright protection is none at all. They assert that the broadcast flag is a Trojan horse for less acceptable anti-copying schemes. That?s why the Electronic Frontier Foundation has launched the Digital Television Liberation Front (www.eff.org/broadcastflag) to encourage consumers to buy flag-noncompliant gear before flag compliance becomes mandated in new gear on July 1, 2005. In the meantime you?re free to buy a high-def-capable tuner card, like the pcHDTV HD-3000 (www.pchdtv.com), and an HD-capable video recorder like the one from MythTV (www.mythtv.org).

As an author of books, I do have at least some sympathy for the entertainment industry. Just as Hollywood needs revenue so that it can keep on making movies with those big-budget effects of which we?re all so fond, I need people to buy my books so that I can pay rent, buy health insurance, keep the fridge full?and keep writing books.

An author/publisher like myself has it relatively easy. Your basic tree-killing book is relatively hack-proof. Most people would rather buy a new book than use a photocopier or scanner to duplicate every page. There are loopholes?you might buy a secondhand copy for less money or check a book out of your public library for free. However, I accept those loopholes, and consider them fair use, partly because I read plenty of secondhand and library books myself.

Copyright protection is not so much a question of yes or no as a matter of how and what. We should accept it?in some reasonably fair form?so that the entertainment industry will feel secure enough to give HDTV, high-def DVD, DVD-Audio, and SACD the support they so richly deserve. These initial implementations of the broadcast flag contain some interesting ideas. Maybe we could live with some of them. Why not use proximity controls to allow networking on a limited basis?

Worse solutions are on the horizon?like the proposed Inducing Infringement of Copyrights Act, which would outlaw products we now take for granted such as unfettered CD-R drives. Any senator or congressman who approves such a draconian law is unworthy of your vote.

Letting the market decide would be healthier in the long run. Manufacturers know that if you don?t like something, you?ll take your business elsewhere, migrating to other forms of electronic entertainment, and make no mistake?these people want to sell stuff!

Digital rights management schemes that hit the sweet spot for program producers, manufacturers, and consumers alike will bring prosperity and give the breath of life to whole new product categories. Unacceptable ones contain the seeds of their own destruction.


Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater (www.quietriverpress.com).

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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