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Reports: Thorny antipiracy treaty is dead for now

The international proposal backed by major broadcasters had drawn opposition from digital rights groups and librarians who said it would imperil the public's home and fair use rights.

A divisive treaty that digital rights groups, consumer electronics companies and librarians have warned would gut the public's home and fair use rights to television signals appears to be on its deathbed.

For years, a United Nations committee has been attempting to craft a treaty designed to give TV and satellite broadcasters, cablecasters and, depending on whom you ask, Webcasters extra latitude to combat piracy of their signals.

But now we're hearing reports from the final day of a weeklong meeting of the World Intellectual Property Organization panel in Geneva that those efforts have collapsed, at least for now.

The original plan was to work out a draft that could be finalized more formally at a diplomatic conference later this year. But after a series of late-night sessions--some open to non-governmental organizations and some off-the-record--and myriad alternative proposals, the committee had reached no consensus and decided against scheduling the conference until it does so, according to a statement from Knowledge Ecology Studies, a group that opposes the treaty.

The chairman of the U.S. delegation to the meeting, Paul Salmon, told the Associated Press on Friday that "there was no agreement on any of the fundamental issues of the treaty."

When that will happen, if ever, is unclear, although the treaty does remain on the committee's future agenda, along with a number of other items.

One major sticking point has centered on whether to give broadcasters exclusive rights to the signals they transmit. The latest draft of the treaty includes a proposal to give broadcasting organizations control over retransmission of their signals.

Opponents argue that approach threatens the ability of home users to watch shows carried on the same signal on different screens--for instance, through use of devices like the Slingbox--and would, by extension, chill the development of new gadgets. Some fear another provision of the proposed treaty could threaten home recording and copying rights because it prohibits removal of any digital rights management or encryption attached to broadcast signals--and the manufacture or sale of any devices or technologies that could accomplish that feat. Among the companies that signed a letter last year opposing the treaty were Intel, Verizon Communications, AT&T, Dell, Sony and TiVo.

"Broadcasters are asking for exclusive rights that will change their bargaining positions in terms of the right to exploit and commercialize works," a coalition of public interest groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, the International Federation of Library Associations, argued in a letter this week. "The treaty will harm both the creative communities, and the public, who will have to negotiate the required permissions and pay for these new rights."

Proponents of the "Protection of the Rights of Broadcasting Organizations" proposal, which include major broadcasting organizations, have long argued that such a treaty is necessary to prevent theft and unauthorized retransmission of their video streams, particularly Web-based content that is arguably more easily shared. The Digital Media Association, a lobbying group whose members include Yahoo, Apple, and CNET Networks property, has also lobbied for such protections to extend to Webcasters, although that idea has generated considerable controversy.

There is, however, disagreement about the latest proposal even within the broadcaster ranks, Public Knowledge has reported. According to a brochure distributed by the North American Broadcasters Association, two of its members--National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service--do not support the latest draft because they don't believe it affords the fair use protection necessary for newsgathering and other purposes.