Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from the MPAA.
Television fans who like to choose when and where they watch their favorite programs are in for a rude awakening next year when new copy controls encoded in digital television streams will limit such freedoms.
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Broadcasters have been steadily moving from broadcasting content in analog to digital format over the past several years, as required by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. To protect this digital content from piracy, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a rule that digital television tuners recognize copy controls, called the broadcast flag (PDF), encoded in content streams. Digital video-recording devices would detect the broadcast flag, and the flag would prevent users from making multiple high-quality copies of the programs for illegal distribution. As of July 1, 2005, it would be illegal to manufacture or import devices that can receive digital programming without responding to the broadcast flag.
To fight the impending rule and to stoke backlash from TV viewers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation earlier this month launched the Digital Television Liberation Project to guide people on how to make their own personal video recorders from off-the-shelf parts. The digital-rights group is encouraging people to buy digital TV, or DTV, tuner cards for their PCs, and is distributing instructions on how to build TiVo-like digital video recorders. The idea is to get people hooked on the charms of time-shifting -- recording a program and then watching it at a later time -- and to help them understand what they would be missing once the broadcast flag rule goes into effect.
"A tuner that is built today sees the whole stream but just ignores the flag," said Wendy Seltzer, EFF attorney and leader of the Digital Television Liberation Project. "A tuner that is built after the flag goes into effect must recognize and respond to the flag."
Representatives from the EFF will demonstrate a homemade DTV personal video recorder at Defcon this week in Las Vegas. Seltzer said the EFF hopes to have a stable of devices to demonstrate what people get when they construct their own DTV personal video recorder, and what wouldn't be available when Hollywood dictates what the machines can do.
"The FCC has required that manufacturers make their devices less capable, and that's all at the urging of Hollywood and the entertainment companies," Seltzer said. "We think this is a ridiculous way to advance digital television."
She said the broadcast flag would prevent a lot of actions that aren't violations of copyright law. For instance, copying a clip from Fox News might not be possible with the broadcast flag -- even though it's legal. Or time-shifting might become cumbersome with the broadcast flag restrictions, even though it's also perfectly legal.
"There are a lot of things that are still going to be allowed under the broadcast flag. It's not panic time," countered Brad Hunt, chief technology officer for the Motion Picture Association of America. "Consumers will be able to buy devices that will allow them to make secure copies on to DVD and that secure media can be shared with other people." He said that consumers will also retain the right to time shift and send secure digital media over a home network, but not electronically re-distribute the content.
The broadcast flag protection is an important step in preserving free, over-the-air programming, he said.
"There is a process going on within the FCC that is evaluating content protection technologies," he said. "Hollywood is not the one certifying the technologies."
To build a DTV PVR, users need a tuner card capable of reading the DTV signal. Once installed, the tuner card can record programs to the hard drive of a PC. Users would then hook their PC to a television or a high-definition monitor for viewing. The PCs also could burn the programming to a DVD and perform TiVo tricks like pausing, replaying and fast-forwarding.
The broadcast flag only applies to over-the-air broadcasts. Cable and satellite companies already have their own digital-rights management in place.
Raffi Krikorian, a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and author of TiVo Hacks, has already built his own high-definition PVR. His computer is outfitted with an HDTV tuner card, MythTV software and an HDTV antenna. He watches programs on a high-resolution computer monitor.
"It's exactly like having a TiVo for HDTV," Krikorian said. "I can record the HDTV broadcast of West Wing and watch it some other time."
The EFF is also fighting the flag in court. Along with the American Library Association and Public Knowledge, it has challenged the FCC in a lawsuit, arguing that the commission has no right to impose such controls on technology manufacturers or to restrict copying.
If the broadcast flag proceeds as planned, "We'll be able to (do) less with DTV than we've been able to do with analog television," Seltzer said. "Most disturbing (is) that the new capabilities that could exist will never get the chance to be tested."
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