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U.S. Senators Seeking Copy Protection Pact

Consumer electronics manufacturers and advocates of home recording rights told members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that federal mandates and standards will be required if the various digital television (DTV) interests cannot quickly reach private agreements on digital copy protection.

The statements came in a special hearing to seek consensus on copy protection issues as the Senate committee chairman Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) prepared to propose a bill that would require computer and consumer electronics manufacturers to embed copy-protection technology into their products.

Most of those who testified agreed to the need for copy protection to thwart overt piracy. But representatives from the CE industry and consumer rights groups objected to systems that would impede the legal ability of consumers to record programs in their homes, as they do now on VCRs and personal video recorders.

They cautioned that restrictive systems that limit consumers’ fair-use recording rights would kill the digital transition.

Meanwhile, Hollywood executives, including Disney chairman Michael Eisner, said they have no incentive to produce digital content if strong copy protection measures are not in place.

And Leslie L. Vadasz, Intel VP, said a copy protection system is under review by a copy protection technical working group and a proposal could be ready by the end of the month.

What troubled consumer electronics manufacturers, however, were systems that would allow content producers and distributors the ability to remotely control how their programming is presented and used inside consumers’ homes.

“Copy protection must be effective, particularly in addressing the core problem of unlawful Internet retransmission, but it must permit consumers to continue to make recordings for their personal use within their homes just as they have come to expect in the analog world since the advent of the VCR,” stated James Meyer, special advisor to the chairmen of Thomson multimedia. “Consumers making investments in advanced digital products will not and should not accept reduced functionality in their digital viewing experience.”

Meyer told the Senate committee that continued delays in settling the digital copy protection issue is hurting the nation’s transition to a digital broadcasting system.

“Content owners have yet to release truly compelling digital high-definition movies, sports and shows,” he said. “Their reasoning is simple — they want more protection from illicit Internet redistribution of digital content.”

Like Meyer, Bob Perry, Mitsubishi marketing VP presenting testimony on behalf of the Home Recording Rights Coalition, warned that some content producers are trying to dictate the designs of next generation consumer electronics products, and if Congress were to allow it, “the digital revolution would never fulfill its potential.”

“Digital technology is scary to some in its potential for content distribution, but its potential for control is even scarier,” Perry said.

Perry said the agenda of some studios “extends to dictating product design generally, and controlling all home network use by consumers.”

He added, one unnamed studio “wants to be able to control home recording of free, over-the-air broadcast programming,” which he said would be unfair and have significant, harmful consequences for consumers.

Perry explained that some studios and video service providers would use remote control access to consumer equipment to step down the resolution of HDTV programming on those monitors that lack copy protected digital connectors.

Such controls, he said, could “chill the continuing transition to DTV, stranding consumers who own the more than 2.5 million digital television displays which require a separate set-top box to decode DTV broadcasts and give content providers unlimited control over what these consumers can view on their DTV set.

“Any studio, cable or satellite operator coming before the Congress or the FCC should be asked to explain how such an outcome could possibly serve the public interest.”

Perry said that “instead of imposing selectable output control or degrading certain signals to prevent the recording of high-definition content,” the studios should work with consumer electronics and technology companies to develop a balanced security regime. This should protect the current class of DTV monitors in the market and consumers home recording rights.

Meyer argued that “if we’re going to have an orderly transition, there needs to be agreement about what we’re trying to protect and how.” Thomson prefers private agreements that insure full functionality in a Personal Home Network, and protection of digital content from widespread piracy.

He said Thomson is developing a new technology called SmartRight, which is designed to work with a “smart card,” to permit viewing, recording and storing of digital content for use on a personal private network.

The system could be applied to cable, satellite, off-air broadcasts and even computing platforms. “SmartRight is a good example of a technology that is reliable, renewable, modular, and easily applied to a variety of situations,” said Meyer.

Regarding the cable industry’s performance in aiding the DTV transition, Meyer called the incompatibility between various cable systems throughout the country, “another roadblock in the digital TV transition.”