Tech Industry

Congress raises broadcast flag for audio

Lawmakers say bill to outlaw noncompliant receivers is necessary to protect music industry from piracy.

Digital radio receivers without government-approved copy-prevention technology likely would become illegal to sell in the future, according to new federal legislation announced Thursday.

Rep. Mike Ferguson, a New Jersey Republican, said his bill--which would enforce a so-called "broadcast flag" for digital and satellite audio receivers--was necessary to protect the music industry from the threat of piracy.

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Ferguson's proposal would grant the Federal Communications Commission the power to enforce "prohibitions against unauthorized copying and redistribution" for both digital over-the-air radio and digital satellite receivers.

"With exciting new digital audio devices on the market today and more on the horizon, Congress needs to streamline the deployment of digital services and protect the intellectual property rights of creators," said Ferguson, who is a member of the House of Representatives' Internet subcommittee. Rep. Mary Bono, a California Republican, is one of the four other co-sponsors.

Without explicit authorization from Congress, the FCC can't get away with mandating an audio broadcast flag on its own. That's because a federal appeals court last year unceremoniously rejected a similar set of regulations from the FCC, saying the agency did not have authority to mandate a broadcast flag for digital video.

At a breakfast roundtable with reporters on Thursday, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) said some sort of legislation is necessary to prevent Americans from saving high-quality music from digital broadcasts, assembling a "personal music library" of their own, and redistributing "recorded songs over the Internet or on removable media."

Devices like the Sirius S50, the RIAA worries, can record satellite radio broadcasts but aren't required to include digital rights management limitations.

But the RIAA and Ferguson may face an uphill battle in Congress. At a hearing in January, some senators expressed concern that an audio flag would infringe on traditional notions of fair use rights, and the politically powerful National Association of Broadcasters also urged caution on the audio flag.

The recording industry is worried about a new generation of digital radio and satellite services that send high-quality digital signals along with the associated metadata--song title and artist, for example. Some of the new devices include hard drives that allow these songs to be archived and played back later, and some, such as the popular Sirus S50, can also be connected to a computer.

The satellite radio companies have grappled with the issue of unauthorized copying in the past, although there is little or no evidence showing that their networks have helped seed file-swapping networks or other piracy hubs. XM Satellite Radio pulled a PC version of its receiver off the market in 2004, when an independent company created a tool that let songs be archived on the computer's hard drive.

CNET's John Borland contributed to this report.