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Keep Selectable Output Control In Consumers’ Hands

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) fired off a very interesting ex parte letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week is response to a letter submitted Nov. 4 by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) pushing its position that the use of selectable output control (SOC) over copyrighted content played on consumer devices would be “consumer friendly.”

In case you’ve just tuned in to this long-running debate, it seems that the MPAA is now petitioning the President Obama-appointed commissioners to consider enabling content producers to seize control of technologies built into various set-top boxes and source components already in homes. The content owners would then have the power to turn off or scale down the resolution of high-definition programs that are ported over analog-based outputs, such as component video (YPbPr) terminals.

It seems the extra comfort level this control would afford content producers might encourage a range of consumer-friendly capabilities, such as new and earlier release windows for certain movies and programs.

But the CEA correctly, I believe, pointed out that if permitted, this could be very bad news to owners of DTV sets that were produced prior to the arrival of content-protected digital video outputs, including DVI and HDMI with HDCP, which weren’t universally incorporated into digital TVs until several years ago.

By limiting HD output to only such copy-protected connections, movie producers believe they will limit the ability of digital pirates to make illicit recordings of premium content on cable, satellite and telco TV services.

The problem is, if your set lacks the aforementioned digital inputs, which many DTVs in the U.S. homes do, you could lose the ability to view the selected shows in high-definition resolution – hello again mushy, color-smeared programming. (Aren’t you glad you spent all that money on an HDTV set as an early technology adopter?)

The CEA and its sister-in-arms advocacy group, the Home Recording Rights Coalition, reminded the newer FCC members that giving producers such control might not be the most “pro-consumee” option in the world.

“Since the MPAA’s recent (Nov. 4) letter ignores what it actually proposed in its own SOC petition, we urge the commission to revisit it and consider the power MPAA members are requesting – power that will give them the ability to control how consumers can use lawfully acquired products in the privacy of their homes,” the joint CEA/HRRC letter stated.

“The MPAA simply ignores the fact that its petition would vest in its own members the power to choose among, and turn off selectively, secure digital interfaces to secure digital devices,” the CEA letter stated.

The CEA had previously pointed out to the commission that the consumer market lacks any recording devices capable or recording high-bandwidth HD signals over component video terminals.

“Yet if content distributors can remotely decide on a program-by-program or channel-by-channel basis that programming will only be made available via a favored interface or technology, consumers will be legitimately disappointed (and likely outraged),” the letter stated.

The CEA further showed that if the SOC is used, “a consumer who has purchased an HDTV display an affected set owner could face a black screen rather than receive programs that her neighbor, who subscribes to the same service but bought a different brand or model, will continue to receive.”

Additionally, “a consumer who owns a display with an SOC favored input might find that input already connected to a device other than the [cable or satellite TV provider’s] set-top box,” the letter continued.

“At a minimum, this consumer would have to incur the expense and inconvenience of re-jiggering connections, switching incessantly, or seeking professional help and additional gear. In some homes this might simply not be possible. And even if possible, the consumer who has invested in the change would then be frustrated if another MPAA member takes an opposite approach, or if the first changes its mind and reverses its choices.”

Meanwhile, the CEA argued: “When applied to digital outputs and protection technologies that are already deemed secure, SOC apparently will be used only to discourage lawful home networking and home recording. Content will not be viewable solely because a consumer chose to purchase a digital device with an interface or protection technology that has suddenly been deemed unacceptable, for any arbitrary and unexplained reason, to an MPAA member.”

“Since the digital outputs are already protected according to the requirements of content distributor licenses, this is not a matter of legitimate intellectual property protection. Nor has the MPAA shown why the existing protections afforded to content made available over video-on-demand platforms is insufficient.”

“Further, the MPAA provided no data to demonstrate that ‘piracy’ occurs on these platforms to justify defeating consumers’ expectations that their devices will work to their full capabilities,” the CEA said.

Meanwhile, the CEA also correctly pointed out that MPAA member Warner Brothers Entertainment already has begun offering films via VOD before the DVD release date, which is “precisely the type of offering that the studios claimed necessarily would require a higher level of protection against copyright theft than is currently permissible” in order to be implemented.

The FCC already ruled against giving content producers and distributors such controls in the past. What has changed to make it any more desirable now?

The MPAA has already seen to it that consumers have no consumer friendly way to make copies of HDTV programming on recordable Blu-ray Discs. (Don’t expect to see any consumer Blu-ray Disc recorders anytime soon).

There is also no readily available consumer friendly way to make copies of HDTV programming over the so-called unprotected analog component-video outputs. So why do producers require the ability to shut down such ports? Why must thousands of consumers who have purchased expensive HDTVs five or more years ago lose the ability to watch some programs in HDTV now that it is finally available? Just to prevent a handful of pirates from possibly using expensive professional recording equipment with complex analog-to-digital encoders from illegally reproducing the content for sale?

The solution to that problem lies with law enforcement, not by discriminating against the people who helped to make the digital TV transition happen.

The MPAA can keep its windows and new and improved viewing meters if it means giving up any more of our fair-use rights.