A group of consumer electronics and entertainment companies have agreed on a way to protect digital TV programs from being traded via the Internet—a major step on the road to high-definition television.
The Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG), which included technology and movie studio executives, issued a final report in June after more than six months of negotiations. The group proposed that digital TV programs be embedded with a "broadcast flag." All digital devices would be required to recognize the flag, which would prevent the protected content from being distributed on the Internet. The report states, "The proposed technical solution does not interfere with the ability of consumers to both make copies of DTV content, and to exchange such content among devices connected within a digital home network."
Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) spokesman Jeffrey Joseph praised the group for reaching an agreement on a protection standard. "A lot of great work went into the report," he said. "I think it says a tremendous amount that the co-chairs were able to drive the process and get any result."
Critics of the BPDG contend that the negotiations and resulting report were controlled primarily by a group known as the 5C companies: Sony, Intel, Hitachi, Matsushita, and Toshiba. "A small number of companies have been pushing one proposal," said Thomas Patton, vice president of government relations at Philips Electronics.
Consumer groups say they had no input in the BPDG process. "It wasn't a consensus body—it wasn't open to the public, it wasn't open to the press," said Cory Doctorow, outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (The EFF has posted a copy of the BPDG report on their site at www.eff.org/IP/Video/ HDTV/bpdg-report.) In their report, the BPDG co-chairs (executives from Fox Group, Intel, and Mitsubishi), defend the process, saying, "Companies were free to meet separately to form and negotiate proposals and present those to the full BPDG. This may have given the unintended appearance that BPDG was not fully transparent and some parties may have felt ‘excluded' from particular discussions."
Although the majority of BPDG members agreed on the broadcast flag, many areas of disagreement on digital TV copy protection remain. A number of companies are worried that the process of having digital TV protection technologies "approved" may be used as a competitive weapon by those in charge of the approval process. The BPDG did not address the "analog hole," which Hollywood wants to plug. This refers to the ability to convert a "protected" digital program to analog and then back to digital program in order to erase the protection built into the original signal.
One of the CEA's biggest worries about the implementation of digital protection is the impact on present-day DVD players, Joseph said. The association worries that the more than 30 million DVD players sold so far would not be able to play DVDs that contain digital TV programs protected by the broadcast flags.
Hollywood opposes enacting any "grandfather" provisions to accommodate existing equipment, because tens of millions of existing DVD drives would remain capable of serving up digital content that could be distributed over the Internet.
"They did go to some lengths to characterize the breadth and scope of the disagreement that remains," Patton said. "It shows clearly that there is much more work to be done." However, he adds, with so many unresolved issues, the report "really provides no guidance at all to policy makers."
And Congress is getting frustrated by the slow pace of the digital TV rollout. Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-SC) introduced a bill in March that would give technology, entertainment, and consumer groups a year to agree on a way to stop Internet distribution of digital TV programs and plug the analog hole before the government steps in. The Hollings bill provoked an outcry from consumer and electronics groups, but is not considered likely to pass. As entertainment lawyer Jim Burger—a key player in negotiations surrounding DVD copy protection—remarked at DVD 2002 regarding the Hollings bill, "The day a bill's proponents start publicly proclaiming victory, you know it's dead."
More recently, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), chairman of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, urged entertainment and technology companies to reach an agreement on a digital copy-protection standard quickly. Otherwise, he cautioned, Congress would devise its own solution.
The government wants copy protections in place to pave the way for conversion to digital television, because it plans to sell some of the TV stations' broadcast spectrum to wireless companies. The Federal Communications Commission has set a 2006 deadline for full conversion to digital television.
The CEA opposes any effort by Congress to broadly regulate digital TV. "The industry should hash this out," Joseph said. "There is a role at the end of this process for Congress to very narrowly legislate."