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Senate may hoist broadcast flag again

The antipiracy measure for digital TV receives a boost in the Senate. A version intended for digital radio does not.

A controversial form of copy protection for digital TV broadcasts inched closer to becoming law on Tuesday after receiving an enthusiastic endorsement from a key U.S. senator.

Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, said at a hearing that the so-called broadcast flag was necessary to curb Internet piracy of TV shows. Future TV tuners would be required to detect the flag and prevent recordings from being redistributed freely.

"It is a subject that requires an act of Congress, in my opinion," said Stevens, who is the influential chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee.

What's digital radio?
Satellite radio was last year's big thing. With a monthly subscription from either XM Radio or Sirius, you can get hundreds of uncensored channels. And yes, one of those is Howard Stern.

Consumer electronics makers are hoping 2006 will be the year of HD Radio. Like satellite radio, HD Radio requires a special receiver. Unlike satellite radio, though, it picks up digital signals transmitted over the same frequencies that FM radio uses. Many are commercial-free.

CNET has reviewed the Boston Acoustics Recepter Radio HD and the Yamaha RX-V4600.

The Federal Communications Commission approved the broadcast flag in November 2003, ordering a halt to the manufacture of non-compliant TV tuners. After a federal appeals court said the FCC did not have the authority to order a ban, the entertainment industry turned to Congress for explicit authorization.

But a second proposal before the committee--to restrict the sale of digital radio receivers that can record songs--met with a lukewarm reception. (Digital radio, sometimes called HD Radio, uses the same frequency range as FM broadcasts and is not the same as satellite radio.)

Stevens asked Mitch Bainwol, the head of the Recording Industry Association of America who testified at the hearing, if such an audio flag would curb his rights to use an iPod purchased by his daughter. Stevens said his daughter bought him an iPod and filled it with songs transferred from CDs.

If I "use it on my own home, on my own iPod, are you trying to restrict that?" Stevens said, adding: "We have a disagreement here, I think."

Bainwol said that unless Congress banned the sale of digital radio receivers without the audio flag, creativity in the music industry would suffer. A receiver that could easily record songs and shuffle the play order like Apple Computer's iPod, he warned, would mean the record labels would not get paid for the download.

It's "not casual recording by listeners," Bainwol said. "It is not taping off the radio like we used to do. We are talking about allowing broadcast programs to be automatically captured and then disaggregated, song by song, into a massive library of music."

Sen. John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican, said he is adamantly opposed to the federal government mandating either the audio flag (for radio) or the broadcast flag (for over-the-air TV).

As new technologies like radio, TV, videotape and CDs appeared, Sununu said, "we didn't need to step in with a significant statutory government-regulated mandate." Instead of rushing to legislate, he added, the Congress "ought to be at least a little bit more skeptical than we are now" of claims of economic ruin from the entertainment industry.

The politically powerful National Association of Broadcasters also urged caution on the audio flag.

Dan Halyburton, a vice president at Susquehanna Radio who was testifying on behalf of the NAB, said that peer-to-peer networks offer "a more important and immediate threat" than people making their own recordings.

"NAB does not believe that legislation is necessary at this time," Halyburton said. "The immediacy, reality or scope of any threat to the recording industry from a scenario in which consumers make good quality recordings from digital broadcasts on their local radio stations remains to be demonstrated."