Access Denied II

Illustrations by Sandra Shap

You're all set to record a pay-per-view movie through the digital set-top box your cable provider installed just hours ago. But when you program it to record, your DVD recorder flashes a cryptic message indicating that the show can't be copied. Must be the usual screw-up by the cable company, you reason. No big deal: you'll just watch it live and call service in the morning. Then the program comes on, but the crisp, filmlike picture you've come to expect from high-definition TV just isn't there. It doesn't look much better than what you get on DVD. Come to think of it, the movie you recorded on DVD for the kids last week wouldn't run on the hand-me-down player in their bedroom. By now, your suspicions about the cable installation have spread to the store that delivered and set up your home theater.

Something is obviously wrong - but don't blame the hardware or the store that sold it to you. Welcome to "Access Denied II," the sequel to April's "Access Denied," which explored how the recording industry is trying to protect copyrighted music through draconian copy-prevention schemes built into CDs and CD recorders.

In this latest nightmare scenario, you can't record a movie or even see it at full resolution because the cable company is using the digital rights-management (DRM) system being demanded by the Hollywood studios. Since the digital age has made it so easy to dub a perfect copy of a movie and then endlessly clone it, copyright owners have been desperately looking for safeguards like these to protect their intellectual property. But just how much protection should be applied has become a major issue, with powerful and determined forces lined up on each side of the question.

The content owners - read "Hollywood studios" - insist on stringent controls and are reluctant to let their most popular films be broadcast in high-definition without them. If the practice of making digital copies at home and then "sharing" them over the Internet caught on, the studios would stand to lose a lot of money on DVD and tape sales.

On the other side, consumer-electronics manufacturers and consumer advocates contend that these kinds of controls would deny viewers the right to make fair-use copies of legally purchased content. The U.S. Supreme Court established that right with the landmark 1984 decision that prevented the studios from blocking sales of Sony's Betamax VCR. The court ruled that viewers can make video recordings of programs for personal use. Americans have become accustomed to time-shifting favorite TV programs, and we're not likely to give up that right without a fight just because we've arrived in the digital age.

The U.S. government also has a hand in this game, primarily because a lot of money is riding on it. The transition from analog to digital TV (DTV) is supposed to be completed by the end of 2006 so the analog frequencies can be auctioned off for other communications uses. The big bucks from that spectrum sale have already been earmarked to fund future Federal budgets.

So it's not too surprising that Congress has taken a keen interest in getting DTV up and running. The legislators reckon that more high-def programming will spur demand for digital TVs, which will in turn cause economies of scale to kick in, leading to lower prices. Congress has been pushing the studios and hardware manufacturers to reach an agreement that will satisfy Hollywood's desire for a secure way to deliver its content while preserving the viewer's right to display programs with unimpaired quality and to make copies for private use.

Waving the Broadcast Flag

If the scenario outlined at the beginning ever comes true, the losers will be the electronics industry, fair-use advocates, and - of course - the average viewer. In early June, the chairman of the House Commerce Committee, Billy Tauzin (R-LA), called upon the studios and the hardware manufacturers resolve their differences over DTV copy protection and issue a report by midsummer to guide legislators in reaching an agreement. Tauzin resorted to this approach after previous "carrot and stick" efforts failed to drive the warring parties to a voluntary agreement.

The "stick" was the proposed "Consumer Broadband and Digital TV Promotion Act of 2002" (S-2048), sponsored in March by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Fritz Hollings (D-SC). The act threatens to impose copy protection on DTV broadcasts if the two sides can't agree on a mutually acceptable system within a year of its passage. The responsibility for developing and imposing the rights-management and copy-protection standard for digital broadcasts and digital TVs, set-top boxes, and recorders would fall on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The "carrot" was the opportunity for the two camps to avoid government intervention and work out a deal on their own. Although the Hollings bill has little chance of passage this year, if ever - Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over copyright issues, has already proclaimed it dead - it prompted Hollywood and the consumer-electronics, computer, and cable-TV industries to establish a working group to settle the issue. Ceding to Hollywood's demands, the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG) agreed on the implementation of a "broadcast flag" - a code-bit embedded in a digital broadcast that would instruct devices to either allow unrestricted copying (Copy Freely), permit a single copy to be made (Copy Once), or prevent copying altogether (Copy Never).

But that's about as far as it went. While the group agreed that there should be flags, there was no consensus on how the hardware would respond to them. And though the group's report reaffirmed the consumer's right to fair-use recording, it didn't specify which copy restrictions would be used for which kinds of programs.

Now You See It, Now You Don't

That these digital rights-management and copy-protection rules are still being negotiated this late in the game is a frightening prospect to the million-or-so "early adopters" who own HDTV sets. But everything at the moment indicates that the negotiations won't render their TVs obsolete. Current sets use analog inputs to receive high-def content, but the copy-protection debate applies to digital-to-digital connections between digital TVs, set-top boxes, recorders, and PCs. Existing HDTVs wouldn't even see a broadcast flag.

"Current-generation digital TV products are not looking for the broadcast flag, so there would be no reason for them to respond to this information," said Dave Arland, spokesman for RCA parent Thomson Multimedia. "Obviously, there is great temptation to use this broadcast flag discussion to jam a bunch of other things down the pike. That's why we're working to insure that the delicate balance between content ownership rights and consumer expectations is kept intact." The broadcast flag could be used to trigger a digital rights-management system called Digital Transmission Content Protection (DTCP), which could execute copy-protection commands. "The broadcast flag has no impact on existing digital products, and in the future, if implemented, products with a digital IEEE 1394 [FireWire or i.Link] connector and DTCP will have no trouble [displaying the DTV signal]," said BPDG co-chair Robert Perry, whose company, Mitsubishi, has been pushing FireWire connections for digital TVs. "What the flag will affect is products with Internet-type connections, such as Ethernet. They won't be able to move that content."

Michael Ayers, president of the Digital Transmission Licensing Administrator, which represents the developers of the DTCP rights-management scheme, agrees that the broadcast flag won't affect existing digital products. But he conceded that it could prevent any of the 30-million current DVD players from playing recordings made on future "compliant" DVD decks.

Given his company's stake in the DVD recorder market, it's not surprising that within days of the BPDG's report, Philips CEO Lawrence Blanford issued a tirade condemning its implications. The copy-protection technologies discussed in the report could allow content providers to "remotely disable large quantities of devices that are recording movies or other programs in consumers' homes," including new DVD recorders, he said. "Millions of consumers would have to replace their DVD players to watch digital TV programs that they have digitally recorded" - presumably because the players wouldn't have the circuitry to decode the encryption or authentication information on recorded discs. Perry of Mitsubishi was also concerned about backward compatibility of recordings made on future DVD recorders. But he took issue with Blanford's assertion that the installed base of players would have to be replaced, pointing out that today's DVD players would still be able to play prerecorded DVDs and recordings made on currently available machines.

The Conditional Future

Although the studios have pledged to respect the fair-use recording rights of viewers to time-shift programs, hardware manufacturers are wary of what kinds of copy restrictions the studios might place on such recordings. The two copy-protected digital connection standards currently being implemented in HDTVs, digital set-top boxes, and digital recorders certainly give Hollywood the means to restrict those rights. Here's a quick run-down of what they are and what they would do.

l DTCP The 5-Company (5C) Group of Hitachi, Intel, Matsushita (Panasonic), Sony, and Toshiba developed this system, which has been provisionally endorsed by the major Hollywood studios. Primarily, the DTCP system interprets the Copy Never flag to prevent recordings on removable media, such as tapes or discs, of some pay-per-view or video-on-demand programming. But you would still be able to make recordings on hard-disk digital video recorders such as ReplayTV or TiVo systems, within certain limits, such as how long you can pause a program before returning to watching it.

l HDMI The High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), which uses a single connection to transport high-def video and multichannel digital audio among devices, also satisfies Hollywood's copy-protection demands. HDMI is being developed by Hitachi, Panasonic, Philips, Silicon Image, Sony, Thomson, and Toshiba.

The new connector builds on the existing Digital Visual Interface (DVI) standard, which has already appeared in a number of HDTVs and high-def satellite receivers. DVI shuttles uncompressed digital signals among devices, and it can also include the High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) system developed by JVC, which is called D-Theater in JVC's digital VHS recorders and on prerecorded D-VHS tapes. Because the signal is uncompressed with HDMI as well, there is no processing or degradation. This ensures that the content is sent from the source to the display with the highest possible resolution.

Quality aside, the size of the uncompressed HDMI digital signal would make it difficult to record and transmit it over the Internet - Hollywood likes that. It takes 24 hours to upload 30 minutes of uncompressed HDTV programming, even with a broadband connection, according to Thomson's Arland. But since compression methods and telecommunications technology are constantly evolving, the studios also want copy protection for uncompressed signals. JVC's HDCP provides that by encrypting the uncompressed content.

What Lies Ahead

The negotiations over the broadcast flag and other digital rights-management issues only concern over-the-air HDTV broadcasting. What the satellite and cable-TV companies decide to do is subject to different policy procedures - and debate.

The DirecTV and Dish Network satellite services already have pacts with the studios to protect their programming. Their digital signals are encrypted, and both services have long been able to use Macrovision copy protection to keep people from making VCR and DVD recordings using a satellite receiver's analog output.

The cable industry, feeling competitive pressure from the satellite services, wants to offer the studios similar protection for its premium programming. But cable wants to use "selectable output controls" that would give the cable operator the option of remotely manipulating the set-top box to block content to various devices or to pass only lower-quality signals, reducing high-definition picture resolution to DVD quality levels. This specter of Big Brother has raised the ire of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and other industry groups (for more on this, see "HDTV's Cable Conundrum" below). Both the CEA and the Home Recording Rights Coalition (HRRC) assert that selectable output controls on cable boxes could deny HDTV programming to some subscribers as well as limit the capability of devices like digital video recorders. At press time, the CEA and HRRC were preparing counterfilings with the FCC and other campaigns to block cable's actions.

Will HDTV be allowed to spread out to the masses, or will it be caught up in a tangle of copy-protection and digital rights-management issues? Both current HDTV owners and prospective buyers want to know the answer. Also, will viewers be allowed to freely record and time-shift programs in the new digital era? Everyone will be watching the deliberations for positive signs, but with the deadline to cease analog TV broadcasting just a few years away, let's hope they wrap things up soon.