Industry girds for digital-copying battle

Mar 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

If you think the battle over Napster is big, watch out for what’s brewing in the programming world.
A Napster-like war involving television broadcasters, Hollywood studios, equipment manufacturers and cable and satellite TV companies is under way, and the stakes are in the billions.
The struggle pits equipment manufacturers seeking to sell consumer-friendly digital devices that permit copying against content owners trying to protect their programming from being replicated and distributed without permission or compensation.
The next generation of digital television sets, cable set-top boxes and video recording devices, such as TiVo, could leave programming susceptible to picture-perfect copying and unauthorized retransmission on the Internet.
The media industry is engaged in complex talks to adopt some standards. Intel and four Japanese consumer electronics firms, better known as the “5C” companies, are negotiating with seven Hollywood studios.
Some progress has been made: Sony and Warner Bros. support a plan to restrict copying of subscription-based programming in a digital environment, including pay-per-view cable and premium channels such as HBO.
But ABC-owner Disney and News Corp.’s 20th Century Fox, sister to the Fox TV network, backed by Universal, Paramount and MGM, say the protections fall short.
They want them extended to digital TV signals available over-the-air and carried on cable and satellite. Otherwise, they fear their content will be sold and traded without permission by video pirates on the Internet.
“In designing a system to prevent Internet redistribution of television programs, there should be no discrimination between cable and broadcast,” ABC lobbyist Preston Padden said.
ABC and Fox say they’re not trying to restrict copying for personal use, but some copyright holders want to do just that.
“There’s really no legitimate need that I can think of to make multiple copies of any program, even for time-shift purposes, which we recognize is a legitimate consumer interest. You only need one copy,” said Fritz Attaway, executive vice president and Washington general counsel for the Motion Picture Association of America.
The equipment makers have balked at broadening the protections to DTV signals over fear of dissuading consumers from purchasing pricey digital sets and related products.
At a conference in Washington last week sponsored by the Consumer Electronics Association, lawmakers threatened legislative action if the industries can’t reach an accord.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who recently joined 11 other lawmakers in urging the Federal Communications Commission to protect digital broadcast signals from unauthorized retransmission on the Internet, is monitoring the talks.
“The message is very strong: Try to solve it if you can-and don’t put us in that spot [to step in],” he said.
Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., who sits on panels with jurisdiction over these matters, sided with CEA on the need for consumers to make digital copies for personal use.
In exchange for granting consumers a “reasonable set” of digital home recording rights, he wants Congress to require digital TV recorders to respond to so-called watermarking technology that prohibits copying in certain instances.
A coalition of trade groups representing content owners crashed the CEA conference with a press briefing in the same hotel to underscore the need for copyright protection.
MPAA’s Mr. Attaway, who said Internet file sharing amounts to “anarchy,” wants only “legitimate” Web sites to market motion pictures online, with copyright holders duly compensated.
“Consumers are going to be better off finding quality material at a reasonable price that’s easy to get, easy to access,” he said.
MPAA thinks the rights of citizens to access content are not threatened in a digital world and doesn’t want Congress to pursue legislation. Instead, it wants the negotiators to restrict consumers to one digital copy of each movie or TV show.
Meanwhile, Matthew Zinn, general counsel and chief privacy officer for TiVo, whose units store TV shows on computer hard drives, said the company is trying to prevent programs recorded by the devices from ending up on the Internet. TiVo will soon encrypt all content on its units. Even so, he acknowledged that some hackers do try to infiltrate them.