Pro-Hollywood bill aims to restrict digital tuners

Proposal, backed by movie studios, aims to plug "analog hole" by banning sale of noncompliant digital devices.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
A new proposal in Congress could please Hollywood studios, which are increasingly worried about Internet piracy, by embedding anticopying technology into the next generation of digital video products.

If the legislation were enacted, one year later it would outlaw the manufacture or sale of electronic devices that convert analog video signals into digital ones--unless those encoders honor an anticopying plan designed to curb redistribution. Affected devices would include PC-based tuners and digital video recorders.

"This legislation is designed to secure analog content from theft that has been made easier as a result of the transition to digital technologies," House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, said late Friday. Criminals "obtain copyrighted content and then redistribute for profit at the copyright owner's expense," he added.

Sensenbrenner's bill, also backed by Democratic Rep. John Conyers, is designed to plug what technologists have come to call the "analog hole." That's the practice of converting copy-protected digital material to analog format, stripping away copy protection, and shifting the material back to digital format with only a slight loss in quality.

The Motion Picture Association of America applauded the legislation, called the Digital Transition Content Security Act. MPAA Chairman Dan Glickman said in a statement that it was a "very important piece of legislation that will promote more consumer choice as it protects copyright owners in the digital age."

The legislation was introduced just as Congress is departing for the holidays, so it likely won't be considered for the next few months. But it could draw strong opposition from consumer electronics makers and advocacy groups such as Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which already had expressed alarm over an earlier version.

Learning from earlier setbacks
Because the Sensenbrenner-Conyers legislation would hand broad power to the Commerce Department to police the consumer electronics industry, it could yield an aggressive industry response similar to last year's tussle over the Induce Act.

During that process, electronics manufacturers and some Internet providers managed to defeat the Induce Act by arguing that it might be intended to restrict file swapping, but it would actually imperil devices such as Apple Computer's iPod. A 2002 proposal to forcibly implant anticopying technology in consumer gear also was defeated.

The wording of the Sensenbrenner-Conyers proposal seems to indicate that the MPAA and its congressional allies have learned from earlier rounds in Congress over digital copyright. Their bill partially exempts libraries and educators, for instance, chipping away at one potential source of opposition. It also says:

• Digital video recorders with analog tuners or inputs would only be allowed to record "copy-prohibited" shows for 90 minutes. After that, the digital recording must be "destroyed or otherwise rendered unusable."

• Analog video output of "copy-prohibited" recordings would be permitted as long as it was to a VGA output with a resolution of no more than 720 pixels by 480 pixels.

• Violations would be punished by civil penalties between $200 and $2,500 per product. Commercial offenders would be imprisoned for up to five years and fined not more than $500,000.

• The two copy-protection systems that must be supported are Video Encoded Invisible Light--used in a Batmobile toy--and Content Generation Management System-Analog. Products manufactured and also sold to consumers before the law's restrictions kick in a year after its enactment would be legal to resell.