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FCC Orders ‘Broadcast Flag' Mandate

5 Nov, 2003 By: Erik Gruenwedel

In an effort to thwart illegal distribution of digital broadcast television over the Internet, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ordered manufacturers of devices that receive digital TV signals to adopt an antipiracy mechanism known as the “broadcast flag” by July 1, 2005.

Implementation of the mandate, which does not include digital VCRs, DVD players and personal computers with digital tuners, is at the discretion of individual broadcasters.

Proponents of the measure, including the movie studios and some electronics manufacturers, say it ensures the viability of over-the-air digital programming, which, absent any copyright protection platform, would have transferred to more secure cable and satellite services.

“The FCC scored a big victory for consumers,” said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), in a statement. “This puts digital TV on the same level playing field as cable and satellite delivery. All the way around, the consumer wins, and free TV stays alive.”

Media conglomerate Viacom, which owns the CBS Television Network among numerous entertainment properties, called the decision an “historic step forward” for consumers.

The Consumer Electronics Association applauded that the decision won't invalidate “the billions of dollars” invested by consumers in digital devices and urged broadcasters to incorporate the “flag” in a manner that does not encroach upon consumers' fair use rights.

“The FCC has recognized the real-world product development and manufacturing cycles of digital television product manufacturers,” said CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro in a statement. “We believe some special status should have given to news and public affairs programming.”

Civil-liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called the FCC's action “a step in the wrong direction,” and said it will do anything but ensure fair use, innovation and competition.

“Most of the large consumer electronics manufacturers are going to start pre-emptively complying in advance of the effective date beginning early next year,” said Fred von Lohmann, senior intellectual property attorney with the EFF.

“If manufacturers can sell you a ‘broadcast flag'-compliant TV early next year, if you want to buy a new DVD player or other home networking device it will have to be compliant. No one wants to be stuck with the next Betamax of the world.”

Lohmann appreciates that the FCC action does not affect software, but questions whether it allows cable networks to encrypt rebroadcasts of over-the-air content.

“This matters to consumers because it determines whether [they] need to have a cable box in order to have access to basic-tier cable,” Lohmann said.

The FCC said it will address the issue in the future.

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