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FCC Lets Fly Anti-Piracy ‘Broadcast Flag’

Looking to “foster the transition to digital TV” while safeguarding illicit redistribution of over-the-air digital TV, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted the long-awaited, and controversial anti-piracy mechanism called the “broadcast flag.”

The three Republican commissioners voted to approve the report and order on the broadcast flag, while the two Democrats on the commission approved some portions of the order and rejected others.

The “broadcast flag” is a digital code that can be embedded into a digital broadcasting stream. It signals DTV reception equipment to limit the indiscriminate redistribution of digital broadcast content.

Yielding to the desires of many consumer electronics manufacturers, the order was not mandated to take effect until July 1, 2005, giving TV makers the chance to adjust production cycles. It targets only products that are capable of receiving DTV signals over the air and excludes digital devices that lack DTV tuners, such as digital VCRs, DVD players and personal computers.

Additionally, all existing televisions, VCRs, DVD players and related equipment will remain fully functional under the adopted order.

The rules do not affect the consumers’ ability to make digital copies, and is intended “only to prevent mass distribution over the Internet,” according to an FCC statement.

However, the order left the use of the broadcast flag to the complete discretion of broadcasters and did not restrict its use on news and public affairs programming, as some consumer and free-speech advocacy groups had demanded.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell said that the absence of content protection could cause high value programming to migrate from free broadcast television to more secure subscription platforms such as cable and satellite TV service. He said he expects the broadcast flag will encourage availability of “high-value content” on broadcast television, and avoid slowing the DTV transition.

Commissioner Michael Copps said he dissented on the portion of order that “doesn’t preclude the use of the flag for news or for content that’s already in the public domain,” adding that even “broadcasts of government meetings could be locked behind the flag.”

CEA president Gary Shapiro applauded the FCC for implementing a workable timetable.

“Through this act, the FCC has recognized the real-world product development and manufacturing cycles of digital television (DTV) product manufacturers,” Shapiro said. Eddie Fritts, NAB president, and Robert Sachs, National Cable & Telecommunications president, both applauded the ruling.