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Will HDTV antipiracy plan unplug digital networks?

Hollywood wants to control the connections used in new high-definition TV sets. If it wins, home video recording may never be the same again, critics say.

The future of home video recording could hinge on an obscure fight between movie studios and consumer electronics makers over the connections used to ferry digital TV signals to high-definition television sets and other devices.

Hollywood wants consumer electronics companies to limit how video files can be moved between devices that can pick up, record and transfer digital TV signals. The move aims to prevent piracy, but it might also hamper legitimate new media applications such as home networking--a prospect that is making waves in the consumer electronics industry.

Consumer groups and studios are trading barbs over a set of proposals before the Federal Communications Commission that could give studios unprecedented control over digital network technologies such as Firewire and wireless routers used in so-called Wi-Fi networks. They would be able to block recording capabilities, unilaterally turn off digital outputs deemed "unsafe," and degrade the quality of high-resolution signals coming out of today's analog outputs.


What's new:
The movie industry wants to control how high-definition signals are ferried in home entertainment networks.

Bottom line:
The move aims to prevent piracy, but it could hamper legitimate new media applications.

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"There are all these things that are being rolled back out of a purported need to control the digital world," said Mike Godwin, senior technology counsel of Public Knowledge, an advocacy group focused on digital technology issues. Hollywood companies "want this to be like the roach motel, where television checks in and doesn't check out."

The fight over plugs and piracy is just one facet of the ongoing battle in Washington, D.C., to control how computers and other devices can read, save and copy digital content like movies and music. This particular battle is focused on digital television. But many observers say that once strong copy protection is established for one medium, it could quickly be adopted for others.

Hollywood studios and TV companies have said they can't afford to release their best material on new high-definition digital networks if it is likely to be copied and redistributed online or elsewhere. As a result, they have successfully pressed Congress and the FCC to add copy-protection guarantees to several ongoing regulatory proceedings aimed at speeding digital TV to market.

That means that antipiracy protections have become inextricably tangled with new "plug and play" rules, allowing a broad range of consumer electronics devices to plug directly into digital cable networks, instead of just the set-top boxes of the past.

"Digital rights management is critical to the dissemination of high-value content through this equipment," said Fritz Attaway, executive vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America. "If we cannot provide adequate and effective security, those delivery systems can't be used for high-value content."

The new rules, passed provisionally in September, say that almost any device can receive and unscramble copy-protected digital cable signals--if in turn, it can ensure that the programming isn't passed further along in unprotected digital form. That means that if a TiVo box records a digital program, it has to keep it wrapped in high-grade copy-protection in order to send it digitally to another device on a home network, for example.

In its September ruling, the FCC left several of the most controversial antipiracy issues unresolved. The agency is expected to address them this year, setting off a bitter lobbying battle.

Leaving computers out?
One question to be answered is whether PCs, which can be easily upgraded and changed by their users, will qualify as a safe device under this copy-protection standard. If personal computers don't make the grade, it would be a major blow for an industry looking to products such as Media Center PCs as a new source of revenue.

While the FCC has yet to rule definitively on that issue, it has hinted that it does not mean to regulate PCs completely. Most observers expect that some computing devices geared specifically for video and audio, such as Media Center PCs from Hewlett-Packard and Gateway that sport large, flat TV-like screens and use a remote control as well as a keyboard, ultimately will be approved.

Computer companies such as Microsoft and Apple Computer are particularly intent on ensuring that the new rules won't bar some common home networking technologies such as Wi-Fi from transmitting digital cable signals and are asking the FCC for clarification on the issue. They also want to make sure that new connection standards developed by the information technology industry can be quickly approved in the future.

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"We believe that we can build a product that should be able to connect to cable--and can protect content," said Andrew Moss, Microsoft's director of technical policy. "They need to define the regulations so PCs can connect to cable."

Hollywood studios also are asking for two features associated with new devices supporting digital cable that would substantially expand their control over how content is passed between devices on home networks.

One feature, called "selectable output control," would essentially allow them to turn off a device's outputs if a particular destination device was deemed unsafe--for example, in the event a particular kind of copy-protection scheme was hacked and no longer considered secure. Under this retroactive scenario, consumers might wake up one morning to find that they can no longer play back shows from their TiVo digital recorder on their high-definition television (HDTV).

Consumer groups and electronics companies say that's not fair. If a consumer buys a device with the expectation that it will be able to play HDTV movies, that capability shouldn't be turned off because a hacker somewhere broke through the industry's copy-protection plans, they say.

"Barely two years ago, a senior studio executive assured (lawmakers) that his studio and other content companies had 'explicitly abandoned this proposal many years ago,'" Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, said in a statement following the MPAA's proposal. "No one disputes that MPAA and its member companies have the right to change their mind, but they should at least level with the American public, the FCC and Congress about what they now want and why."

Goodbye analog?
The pending ruling also has the potential to cripple the familiar analog plugs that are used to connect virtually all consumer electronics devices today, with an explicit eye toward phasing them out altogether.

The FCC is currently mulling both sides' arguments on the issues, without a scheduled date to make its decision.

Content companies don't like these older connections, because they are less able to support antipiracy features. In the HDTV realm, they want to be able to limit the pristine pictures to the copy-protected digital outputs, sending a lower-quality signal out the older plugs.

Studios say this would be used only for new services, such as video on-demand, and that the "downrezzing" would be almost imperceptible with today's generation of televisions, many of which only have analog inputs. Newer televisions would certainly have the digital plugs and so would not be affected, the content companies say.

"We think that downrezzing is important to provide an incentive for consumers...to purchase equipment that has digital inputs," the MPAA's Attaway said. "That's important, because it hastens the transition" to all-digital television.

Again, consumer groups say that's inequitable, because analog inputs and outputs are ubiquitous on today's equipment and are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

"They want to get rid of analog because they can't control it," Godwin said.