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Movie industry taps FCC to change rules

The FCC is considering a proposal submitted by the Motion Picture Association that would bring new movies to living rooms quicker, but it could also restrict the use of DVRs.

The Motion Picture Association of America is looking to make a deal with the Federal Communications Commission to get the latest Hollywood movies on TV much sooner after their original release. But there's a catch.

In exchange for the faster release, the MPAA wants the FCC to change its rules to allow the industry to prevent these movies from being recorded on DVRs and viewed on some high-definition TVs.

The MPAA filed its petition last week. The FCC is currently asking for comments on the proposal, and it could make a decision on the petition later this summer.

Even though it looks like there could be some benefits for consumers under the MPAA proposal, I think it might be a wolf in sheep's clothing.

The MPAA states in its proposal that movie studios are interested in opening a new distribution channel through cable and satellite TV providers, which could offer new movies before they're available on DVD. This means that people at home will be able to see movies months earlier than they could under the current schedules.

Today it often takes studios three to four months before they release movies on DVDs. Sometimes the wait is longer for hit movies. And cable video-on-demand services typically get movies a month or so after the DVD release.

Of course, studios would likely charge a premium for delivering these early release HD movies at home, but it might be cheaper than taking the whole family to the theater.

But here's where the catch comes in. The MPAA says that this type of distribution increases the risk of piracy, which is already rampant thanks to high-speed broadband networks and file-sharing technology. In an attempt to discourage piracy, the MPAA has proposed that the FCC make an exception to a 2003 rule in order to allow the studios to block certain movies from being recorded by a DVR or viewed on certain high-definition TVs.

In technical terms, the MPAA wants to use "selectable output controls" or commands embedded in the programming that allows the industry to block recording capabilities, unilaterally turn off digital outputs deemed "unsafe," and degrade the quality of high-resolution signals coming out of analog outputs.That means it could turn off analog connectors to TVs and DVRs that use digital connectors. And it also means that it could disable connectors for some digital TVs that don't have copy protections.

In 2003 the agency, then under FCC Chairman Michael Powell, banned the use of these "selectable output controls," because it feared that some consumers would not be able to access high-definition content. The consumer electronics industry argued that consumers would be reluctant to buy high-definition digital TVs if they were unsure whether they'd have access to all content.

Satellite provider DirecTV filed its own petition during the original debate, arguing that without these controls it would be unable negotiate deals with studios for early access to premium content.

If I were advising the FCC, I'd say be careful. Changing these rules is a slippery slope. The MPAA says it's only asking for an exception to the rule for recently released movies, but movie release dates are changing anyway. And it's no secret the movie industry doesn't like home recording devices. Who's to say that the industry won't push the envelope and restrict more content from being recorded?