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Hollings aims at DTV piracy

Mar 4, 2002  •  Post A Comment

In a major step toward government intervention in the rollout of digital television, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings said he’s preparing legislation designed to safeguard DTV programming, movies and other content from Internet piracy.
But the South Carolina Democrat won’t stop there. He told reporters following a hearing last Thursday that he separately plans to author a bill addressing other DTV issues, including the interoperability of digital sets and cable set-top boxes.
“We’re going to have to deal with that,” he said.
The comments from the veteran lawmaker were the strongest signal so far that Congress is ready to meddle with the rollouts of digital television and broadband to breathe some life into these fledgling technologies.
The concern about digital content is that each copy is as good as the original, making it a tempting target for pirates to illegally re-create and distribute. “We’re suffering from $3.5 billion a year right now in analog piracy,” Motion Picture Association of America President and CEO Jack Valenti told the panel, noting that the average motion picture in 2000 cost $82 million to produce.
“If it’s ambushed early on … there’s the possibility of peril and many Maalox moments out where we make movies,” he said.
Also last week, Sen. Hollings’ counterpart-House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La.-reiterated his vow to offer DTV legislation if the television, movie, consumer electronics and computer industries don’t make progress with their negotiations on a host of technical and copyright issues.
Rep. Tauzin, who made his remarks at a National Association of Broadcasters conference in Washington, first revealed his plans to Electronic Media during an interview in December.
The Senate bill would provide these industries with a firm deadline, probably of one year or 18 months, to set copyright protection standards. If they fail to act, the government would be instructed to step in.
At the hearing, Sen. Hollings said he’s fed up with the slow pace of the negotiations, known in industry parlance as 5C. He said of his bill: “This would not be the first time Congress imposed technological requirements to benefit consumers, and it won’t be the last.”
Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., summed up the sentiment of his colleagues with this veiled threat: “Usually when we come up with government solutions we create more problems.”
Disney Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner and News Corp. President and Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin asked the committee to speed the negotiations so protections can be developed for over-the-air DTV fare and other digital programming.
They endorsed a safeguard called a “broadcast flag,” an electronic marker that would protect DTV programs from being illegally copied and redistributed on the Internet.
And they raised concerns about the analog hole: digital programming-broadcast, satellite and digital cable-that is susceptible to illegal copying when converted to analog for display on an analog TV or for recording on an analog VCR.
They also want to end free file sharing on the Web of illegally copied content. “Make no mistake, this is not just about entertainment, this is about the economy,” Mr. Eisner said. “If they kill the content companies,” he said in reference to computer companies resisting some of these proposed changes, “they will definitely impede their long-term growth.”
While Mr. Eisner doesn’t expect 100 percent digital security, he said he wants to reach 90 percent.
Computer and consumer electronics companies insist that any standards not limit home recording rights and warn that stringent safeguards might stifle new technology.
“The media industry will try to make the personal computer nothing more than an expensive video player or an expensive DVD player,” said Leslie Vadasz, executive VP for Intel Corp.
He testified that the 5C-industry group expects to make substantial progress on the broadcast flag issue by late March, but the analog hole is more complicated and will be tougher to resolve.
Mr. Eisner tried to underscore his points by showing the lawmakers footage of a teen-ager who downloads major motion pictures to his computer for free via the Internet-sometimes even before the films reach theaters.
Clips from a pirated Internet copy of the hit movie “Black Hawk Down” were also shown.