MPAA wants to stop DVRs from recording some movies
By Matthew Lasar | June 08, 2008
At the request of theatrical film makers, the Federal Communications Commission on Friday quietly launched a proceeding on whether to let video program distributors remotely block consumers from recording recently released movies on their DVRs. The technology that does this is called Selectable Output Control (SOC), but the FCC restricts its use. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) wants a waiver on that restriction in the case of high-definition movies broadcast prior to their release as DVDs.
"The Petitioners' theatrical movies are too valuable in this early distribution window to risk their exposure to unauthorized copying," MPAA wrote to the FCC last month. "Distribution over insecure outputs would facilitate the illegal copying and redistribution of this high value content, causing untold damage to the DVD and other 'downstream' markets." Less than a month after the request, the FCC has given MPAA a public comment period on the question that will last through July 7.
Expedited distribution—with one, big caveat
MPAA has pressed its Petition for Expedited Special Relief on behalf of Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal City Studios Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Brothers. How did these media companies get an FCC proceeding so fast? Ars bets that hiring former FCC Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy as their attorney helped. Abernathy supported former FCC Chair Michael Powell's drastic relaxation of the agency's media ownership rules in 2003, along with Kevin Martin, now head of the agency.
Movies go through a timeline of staged releases that lasts about three years. First they go to theaters; 60 days after that they start showing up in airplanes and hotels; in 120 days from their theatrical release they transfer to DVD and Internet download; about a month later to video on demand/pay-per-view; by the end of the year to premium subscription systems like HBO and Showtime; and eventually to basic cable and free TV.
MPAA says these studios want to release their movies to multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) "significantly earlier and prior to DVD release"—although the trade groups' filing won't say exactly how much sooner. But in exchange for the accelerated service, MPAA wants permission to obtain SOC blocking of recording capabilities. The group promises that once said movies have reached the home video sale/rental stage, the blocking will stop.
The movie lobby wants a waiver from FCC rules prohibiting MVPDs from adding code to digital video streams, that, among other restrictions, could block copying. Here is the rule: "A covered entity shall not attach or embed data or information with commercial audiovisual content, or otherwise apply to, associate with, or allow such data to persist in or remain associated with such content, so as to prevent its output through any analog or digital output authorized or permitted under license, law or regulation governing such covered product."
MPPA notes that the Commission did say in 2003 that it would consider adjusting this policy around SOC. "We nonetheless recognize that selectable output control functionality might have future applications that could potentially be advantageous to consumers," MPAA observes that the FCC declared in a late 2003 Report and Order, "such as facilitating new business models."
We're here to help
MPAA argues that, in addition to getting first-run movies to the public sooner, giving movie studios a break on this issue could also aid the DTV transition. The enhanced service "will encourage the purchase of HDTV sets by consumers, and thereby ensure that a greater number of citizens have the necessary equipment to receive broadcast digital programming by February 17, 2009."
But unquoted in MPAA's petition is this passage from the same FCC Report and Order: "We also recognize consumers’ expectations that their digital televisions and other equipment will work to their full capabilities, and the potential harm to the DTV transition if those expectations are frustrated," the Commission observed. "In particular, we are concerned that selectable output control would harm those 'early adopters' whose DTV equipment only has component analog inputs for high definition display, placing these consumers at risk of being completely shut off from the high-definition content they expect to receive."
Needless to say, this proposal is likely to get a very cold reception from groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). EFF already warns that SOC and "down resolution"—strategically lowering the level of digital quality—could undermine HDTV. "Many current and novel devices rely on unrestricted outputs, particularly component analog connections," EFF says.
Not surprisingly, the Home Recording Rights Coalition (HRRC) opposes SOC too. "In the long term, imposition of SOC could have the effect of driving from the market any home interface that supports home recording," the group observes. Fears that MPAA's proposal represents a foot in the door to much wider interference with consumer digital applications may also play a role in this discussion.
The FCC wants comments and oppositions to MPAA's proposal by June 25 and replies to comments by July 7.