FCC Mediating Cable Copy Issues

The Federal Communications Commission has begun looking into problems presented by the proliferation of digital cable systems, problems that could offer pirates the opportunity to make an infinite number of perfect copies of high-definition movies from transmissions over pay-per-view channels like Showtime and Home Box Office. The lack of a reliable copyright-protection technology is hindering the rollout of high-definition television.

The Motion Picture Association of America is lobbying for a ban on certain types of cable set-top boxes and cable-ready televisions that might allow unlimited copying. Opposed to the ban are consumer-electronics manufacturers and various consumer groups, who claim that new restrictions could make obsolete hundreds of thousands of receivers already in use. Also threatened with new limits are hard-disk video recorders and other types of computer-based equipment that could be used to violate copyrights.

The film industry has a long history of an almost paranoid fear of piracy. The most famous example was its opposition to the sale of video cassette recorders in the late 1970s, when the devices first went on the market. The Walt Disney Company, backed by several other studios, fought Sony Corporation through the legal system all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Sony. Shortly thereafter, the video rental business became a major revenue stream for the film industry. Many supporters of recording rights have pointed out that the threat to Hollywood comes not from ordinary consumers and movie fans, but from professional pirates working unrestricted in other countries.

The FCC began examining the problem in mid-April, with the goal of writing new rules if needed. One possible outcome is the requirement that digital video recorders be able to read and insert "watermarks" that would limit the number of copies that could be made. Another possibility, one that outrages both equipment makers and home-theater fans, is a proposal to limit signal quality, thereby defeating pirates—and the entire purpose of high-definition television. No sweeping regulations are expected before the national elections in November.

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