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Senators endorse broadcast flag plan

Even though a committee approved anticopying restrictions for digital TV and radio, the debate's not over.

WASHINGTON--A legislative proposal to revive a controversial anticopying system known as the broadcast flag cleared a U.S. Senate panel on Tuesday, despite misgivings from some senators.

During a day of debate on a wide-ranging communications bill, members of the Senate Commerce Committee endorsed the idea of requiring digital TV receivers to restrict redistribution--particularly over the Internet--of over-the-air broadcasts. The measure would also allow for similar rules, or an "audio flag," for digital radio receivers.

Also at the committee meeting, chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, postponed discussion on what has proved to be one of the thorniest provisions of the bill: Net neutrality. Senators plan to begin debate on that topic on Wednesday at 7 a.m. PDT, with votes on a number of amendments expected.

The entire communications bill won't become law unless it receives final approval by the committee and, later, the full Senate. It must also be reconciled with a House of Representatives version that differs in many respects, including its lack of broadcast or audio flag components. House members scheduled a Tuesday afternoon hearing to explore the issue.

The flag provisions may have sailed through the Senate committee without changes for now, but New Hampshire Republican John Sununu said he was strongly considering offering an amendment when the bill moves to the floor. (No recorded vote took place in the committee.)

"I have concerns about the flag language because it is a technology mandate and because the technology mandate may actually discourage innovation and discourage different products from coming into the market," he said.

Backed by the entertainment industry, the audio and video flags are aimed at staving off piracy. The Federal Communications Commission attempted to respond to Hollywood's concerns in November 2003 by writing rules that would render it illegal to "sell or distribute" any digital TV product that's unable to quell redistribution of video clips made from recorded over-the-air broadcasts, particularly over the Internet.

But last spring, a federal court yanked down the flag after concluding that the FCC didn't have the authority to make such rules.

The court's ruling came in response to a suit filed by a coalition of librarians and public interest groups. They argued that the FCC's rules would hinder the ability of librarians and consumers to make "fair use" of copyright works and would hamper interoperability between devices.

Such a plan "injects government into technological design, restricts lawful consumer activities and increases consumer costs by making obsolete millions of digital devices," Gigi Sohn, president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge, said in a statement for Tuesday's House hearing.

Recording Industry Association of America CEO Mitch Bainwol said in a statement for the House committee meeting that his industry wants new content-protection rules targeting portable digital-radio devices that allow users to save songs to playlists and replay them later. He also wants a requirement that digital radio companies pay extra licensing fees for "distribution" of their content--in addition to those they pay for airing it--if they effectively allow users to download songs, he said.

Without those rules, Bainwol said, it's "tantamount to saying that if someone buys a ticket to watch a movie in a theater, he's entitled to take a DVD of the movie home with him afterwards."