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Broadcast Flag Countdown

Consumers excited over the prospect of HDTV's increased clarity and audio quality may not realize that those are precisely the characteristics that terrify the motion picture industry. Fearful that high-definition broadcasts of its films might lead to an increase in video piracy, Hollywood has pressured the Federal Communications Commission, which has issued a proposal requiring future digital television (DTV) tuners to include digital rights management (DRM) technologies. As of July 1, 2005, all HDTV receivers must watch for a broadcast flag (a marker embedded in program material by copyright holders). This will make it impossible for consumers to time-shift or archive broadcast material (or share it on a home network, unless the router also has DRM technology).

This proposal, In the Matter of Digital Content Protection, states, "No party shall sell or distribute in interstate commerce a Covered Demodulator Product that does not comply with the Demodulator Compliance Requirements and Demodulator Robustness Requirements."

If receivers aren't designed to recognize broadcast flags, the FCC has no problem with that—as long as they assume it to be present in all signals. Content containing broadcast flags may only be output to "protected outputs" or to analog outputs (or digital ones with resolution of less than 720x480 pixels). Flagged content may be recorded only by "Authorized" methods, which have not been defined yet, but may include "tethering," which does not allow material to be exported to another device.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation, "a group of passionate people [who] challenge legislation that threatens to put a price on what is invaluable; to control what must remain boundless," has started what it styles the Digital Front of Television Liberation.

The EFF has established a Broadcast Flag Countdown on its website, pointing out, "We have until July 1, 2005, to buy, build, and sell fully-capable, non-flag-compliant HDTV receivers."

Toward that end, the organization has established a clearinghouse of information on personal computer based HD-capable (ATSC) personal video recorders built around pcHDTV's tuner cards that utilize Linux drivers.

From the EFF's website: "Since machines you've already built will still work in high-def next year, we'd like to make HDTV tuner cards easy to use now, while they can still be manufactured. We want to help the MythTV [homebrew PVR project—ed.] project work seamlessly with the pcHDTV card so less technical users can beat the broadcast flag. We'll also use these systems as benchmarks against which to compare the capabilities of post-flag HDTV devices. We also want to hear about Windows and Macintosh HDTV tuner cards, with an eye toward helping people make the most of existing pre-flag products."

For more information, a list of HDTV tuner card resources, or to volunteer, go to www.eff.org/broadcastflag.

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