Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Cheap Media Revolution?

Piracy isn't the only thing that the MPAA and RIAA have to deal with. They would like people to think so, but in fact they have another problem coming, and as technology continues to get cheaper, it will only get worse.

In the past, the music and television industries have been mostly controlled by a few large companies. And as with most large companies, one gets the distinct impression that over the years they have become fat and slow. They are fighting new technology rather than embracing it because they do not know how to deal with it, but in addition, the distinct possibility exists that it will make them largely obsolete.

Big productions require big capital. In the past, all TV shows, movies, and even music recordings required very expensive equipment to record, and large, expensive distribution networks. So in the past, all TV shows, movies and recorded music could only be made and distributed by big companies. Thus artists and directors were always under the thumb of these companies; but this is changing.

The fact is, any person who is driven enough can already record their own songs, shoot their own movies, and distribute them too. It can certainly be expensive for one person, or a small group, but it is within reach, and wasn't before. As Glenn Reynolds explains in an article:
My wife is a filmmaker. Her latest film, which cost about $25,000 to produce, would have cost close to $1 million two decades ago. She shot it with inexpensive digital cameras, edited it with Apple's Final Cut Pro, and released it on the Web, where it has sold quite well. Her movie has been screened in theaters, and excerpts have run on network television. And it was made with gear most anyone can afford.
And check out "Star Wreck: In The Pirkinning", a comedy based on Star Trek and Babylon 5. It's a full-length amateur movie with fantastic visual effects, and it's being offered online for free (Note: it is a Finnish-language film with English subtitles.)

The MPAA and RIAA are middlemen. They bridge the gap between artists' ideas and the realizations thereof; and between artists' creations and consumers. But as these changes continue, the middlemen will be less and less necessary. That's not to say they will disappear entirely, but there is an assload of fat to be trimmed.

Boo hoo, the pirates are killing us, say the media empires. But who are the pirates? One might as well ask, who aren't the pirates? Who has internet and hasn't downloaded any songs illegally? The downloading of TV and movies is increasing, too, and might be as common as music downloading if it weren't for the substandard broadband found in much of the U.S.

The RIAA and its members probably have the most to lose in the near term. While piracy eats into their profits on one end, artists will bite the other. I've often seen claims by certain artists that feel they've been ripped off by the music industry, or are unhappy with the way they are treated. Here's a rant by an independent filmmaker, but usually these rumblings come from music artists; here are some articles Googling gave me: [1] [2].

Big media may suffer greatly in the coming years, although they may be able to reduce their suffering with more protectionist legislation. But the internet is a powerful democratic force, and the people have spoken: they don't like the status quo.

It's not simply that consumers want something for nothing. Yes, we may download songs without paying for them from time to time--sometimes legally, sometimes not; quite a few artists are offering their music for free downloads. But have you noticed how people are buying bottled water these days? Why buy bottled water, when you can get a whole tapful for free? Simple: "free" can be improved upon. Bottled water is portable, more pure (we hope), and tastes better (depending). The music industry could easily improve upon the free music we get from P2P services. Consider the disadvantages of pirate networks:
  • Quality is never guaranteed and may be difficult to ascertain; some files are low-quality, yet encoded at high bitrates.
  • Some popular P2P software is bundled with adware or spyware, and a lot of screen space is used for advertisements.
  • Many songs don't exist on the network, or are transient.
  • File naming conventions and ID3 tags are inconsistent.
  • Search criteria is limited.
  • No social networking features.
  • Downloading is slow sometimes.
  • The RIAA has been known to poison the networks with fake files, and sue file sharers.
Besides, as I mentioned before, it seems as though the RIAA has missed something very important about music: we have to hear music before we decide to buy it. It's not like bottled water, where we can know what we're getting before opening the bottle. Some people will buy albums on faith, but I, for one, will not. Thus, many people download music just to find out what they like, which explains why pirates buy more music.

The RIAA could offer assured quality (even master quality), could provide a product with no ads, adware, or spyware, could provide complete content libraries, fast download speeds, free previews, and it could use algorithms to suggest to users what they might like. Unfortunately, their obsession with piracy has caused them to offer a services that are worse than free. In particular, they insist on using DRM and proprietary formats, which generally prevent consumers from transferring the files between devices they own. I have two computers, an MP3 flash drive and an MP3 CD player (MP3 CDs can hold 5 to 12 times as much music as ordinary CDs). As I said in a previous entry, I want to be able to transfer my music among all these devices with no hassles, and I refuse to pay for any service that prevents me from doing so.*

There is another factors that the RIAA and MPAA could rely on: people's sense of morality and fairness.

You know, I could easily shoplift. It would be so easy to slip a little thing here and there into my pocket, wouldn't it? But I don't. It's not just fear of getting caught; it's also the fact that it's stealing: I'd be taking something from someone else.

Now, Big Media does propagandize the "stealing" idea. But there's a problem: downloading is not stealing. Well, some people think it is, but many do not. There are similarities, certainly; both stealing and downloading can result in someone else (or a group of people) ending up with less money or possessions.

But there is a fundamental difference between stealing and downloading, because stealing is not defined in terms of what the thief gains, but what the victim loses. If a priceless painting is stolen and the thief is unable to sell it, is the crime any less heinous? If he breaks into someone's home and steals some cheap jewellry with immense sentimental value to the owner, should the thief be liable only for its monetary value? On the other hand, what if a thief steals something that the owner was about to throw away? Evil as his intentions may have been, wouldn't the owner be less affected by this crime?

So we cannot say that the downloader "stole" music, any more than you are "stealing" this article by downloading it from my blog. You can download as much as you like and the record companies (and my blog) lose nothing. So the issue is not stealing, but rather, it is the possibility that you have deprived the music vendor of money that you would have paid if you hadn't pirated.

Now legally, copyright infringement is considered worse than stealing, but morally, it is a different matter altogether. First of all, I hope it is clear that if you pirate something that you would not have been willing to pay for, or could not pay for, it is not morally wrong. Poor people, for instance, who are too concerned with their next meal to buy entertainment, deserve little blame for piracy. In days past they might have mooched CDs from friends, and watched movies at their houses; if, today, it is replaced by some downloading, what's the harm?

For those of us above the poverty line, the issue gets murkier. You have to figure out, for yourself, what you would pay for if piracy was not an option.

There are other issues to consider, as well. Capitalist marketplaces are normally democratic. People vote with their feet--they can choose from whom to buy, and if they don't like the way one company does things, they can boycott the company and buy from another. But in the entertainment business, a given work is normally offered by one company only. That is the basis of copyright: a temporary monopoly to encourage the creation of works. Thus, without piracy or mooching off friends, if a consumer wants to avoid buying from a certain company or group of companies, the consumer cannot view the work at all.

In fact, it isn't only consumers who are limited by the system, but artists and directors too. It's standard practice that record companies, not artists, own the rights to their music, and studios own the rights to TV shows and movies, not the directors or writers, and certainly not actors. Not only do studios own the actual shows, but the "franchises" too. MGM, for instance, owns the rights to Stargate SG-1, which means that if the producers, writers or directors wanted to go independent, they would be legally prohibited from doing so.

In this light, piracy can be seen as a tool for empowerment. By choosing to spend money on companies that are not evil (or by donating money directly to artists), consumers can vote with their feet without actually giving up anything.

I would caution all you pirates out there, however, that whatever you do, you should try to ensure that you are doing it for the right reasons. If you pirate, make sure it is not so that you can spend less money. I would encourage you to figure out how much you would spend if downloading was not an option, and make sure you spend that same amount anyway. Donate money outright, if you have to, but donate to something worthwhile in the entertainment industry. Music pirates tend to spend more on music. If you're a pirate, you should bolster that statistic.

As for me, I'm a hypocrite. I have quite a bit of music I haven't paid for, but I haven't figured out how much I would have spent otherwise, and I haven't figured out how I should spend it. If it makes the RIAA feel any better, I've heard so little new music on the radio lately that I haven't added a single new song to my collection in two months. As for TV shows... well, that's another story.

* I would make an exception for "all-you-can-eat" subscription services, which allow you to listen to an unlimited quantity of music, but only as long as you pay the subscription fee. Without DRM or other technological restrictions, people could pay for one month of service, download 10,000 songs, and keep them all indefinitely.

See also: The long tail. Did you hear the latest? MPAA sues grandfather because grandson downloaded 4 movies, 3 of which were already owned by the family.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Free American broadband! has an article about why broadband in the U.S. is expensive and slow, and why geographic coverage is sometimes poor. To sum it up in three words: bad government policy (including capitulation to the corporate desire for monopoly). I couldn't have explained the issue better myself, so I highly recommend it, despite the ad which non-subscribers must tolerate.
...across the nation, the cable and telecom companies, armed with powerful lobbyists and coin-operated "experts" are quietly working the halls of state legislatures and Congress in a concerted effort to kill off Community Internet. Over the past several years, 14 states enacted laws that ban or place limits on municipalities from building Community Internet projects. - Salon article
The situation is better in Canada, although increased competition or community internet might be beneficial here, too.

Monday, October 17, 2005

New international charter from the good guys

Big business has long had an international IP interest group, WIPO, as well as national groups such as the (obviously misnamed) Progress & Freedom Foundation. In defense of the public interest on IP matters, we have the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but while their efforts often have positive global effects, their main focus is in the U.S. I'm not aware of any significant group protecting the IP public interest internationally, but at least now we've got a charter.

From Slashdot:
The Adelphi Charter, an international blueprint for how intellectual property should be made, [is made] by Britain's Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce. The Economist says “The Adelphi group are a varied crew ranging from Gilberto Gil, the Brazilian culture minister (and pop star) to Sir John Sulston, a Nobel-winning scientist who helped decode the human genome, and James Boyle, a law professor at Duke University. They believe that the intellectual-property system is starting to lean so far in favor of private enrichment that it no longer serves the public interest.” The charter calls for evidence-based policy, and a balance between rights protection and the public domain. It also condemns business method and software patents."
Hopefully, this charter can serve as a rallying point for people who want to combat the torrent of bad IP law, and the organizations that lobby for it.

I would like to make a comment on a criticism in The Economist's article:
The charter declares that software, business processes, and medical therapies should not be patented, nor copyright extended to things like databases that are simply compilations of open facts. But the Adelphites have not submitted these ideas to the same kind of rigorous economic analysis that they demand from their foes.
First of all, I do believe that the backers of the charter have done a lot of analysis; I've read a bunch of articles from one of them, James Boyle, and while I don't know if what I've read would qualify as rigorous analysis according to The Economist, it's a lot more rigorous than I could muster. Many of the backers are lawyers, professors or leaders of academic societies, and as such they've collectively done a vast amount of analysis.

Secondly, if you agree with the premise of the charter--an automatic presumption against expanding rights--then it's not necessary to prove that these various IP rights are unnecessary; rather, it's necessary to prove that they are. But from the point of view of the charter authors, and of most geeks, none of the rights in question have proven their value to society, or even to the tradespeople who should supposedly benefit. For instance, I've been programming since I was 10, but I've always been against software patents (well, not since I was 10, but since I learned about them.)

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Micropayments & free software

The internet has always been full of free stuff, but people offering free stuff have always had a problem: it's hard to make money! There are a lot of people offering software and media files (movies, music) for free online, but there have always been few viable ways to make money. Advertisements on web pages can help sometimes, but
  • they annoy visitors, and
  • so few people click on them that for most individuals, it is hardly worth the effort of putting them on their web page.
There are several reasons it is hard to convince people to pay for things online. Here are a few:
  1. In the first place, you generally need a credit card. But some people don't have one! In particular, this requirement is a non-starter for kids and most teenagers. Before I had a credit card, I was willing to pay for some things online, but couldn't.
  2. Most things that people get online, such as desktop wallpaper, individual music tracks, and small programs, just aren't worth very much, and due to the reasons below, people won't pay small amounts with a credit card. Many things are worth well under $1 to the average web surfer, but more than 1¢.
  3. Many things online have value that is only apparent after the user has tried them out. For example, you have to hear a song before you can decide whether it is worth the price, and you have to try a computer program to see if you like it.
  4. Using a credit card is a bother. You have to type in the credit card number, the expiration date and, often, the full name of the cardholder. Also, you usually have to "register" at a site (giving them your e-mail address) before you can pay. Also, you have to pay the credit card bill separately. People don't want to go to so much trouble unless they are spending a sumstantial amount of money. Personally, I prefer debit, and find credit cards to be an all-around nuisance.
  5. Trust is a big problem, especially for small business. No one wants to give their credit card number to an "unknown" web site, because such a site might
    • Have security leaks which could allow fraudsters to steal credit card information from the site after you give it to them.
    • Be selling such a terrible product or such bad service that you want your money back.
    • Be fraudulent itself, and could attempt to steal from you.
A micro-payment system, with which consumers can spend one cent or ten cents on something with a couple of clicks, could solve most of these problems. The technical challenges in implementing such a system would be great, but I think it is entirely feasible. Elsewhere on the web people have talked about how it could be done; I want to focus on the benefits of a micropayment system that attains universal use.

Here's how a micropayment system could address the above problems:
  1. Kids & teens: if users' ISPs take on the money-management task, then parents could register micropayment credit or debit accounts with the ISP, giving a separate account to each child. Parents would be able to set limits on spending per-day or per-week, and, much like a credit card bill, would be able to see the web site addresses at which their children spend money.
  2. Low-value items are the whole point of a micropayment system: to allow websites to make money offering online commodities such as very cheap software, music, individual e-book chapters, and so forth. It would create new business models and markets, and it would reward "small potatoes" content creators like myself.
  3. Items whose value becomes apparent after download: a micropayment system would allow users to easily donate small- and medium-sized amounts to free software projects, to register cheap shareware products, and pay for higher-quality versions of music, videos and other media. For example, online music could be offered at 1¢ for a sample version; when the user decides they like it, they could pay 50¢ to $2.00 for versions of higher quality, alternate mixes, and so on.
  4. Amount of effort required from the buyer: various "one-click" payment methods are possible, which I won't address in this article.
  5. Trust: it is important to ensure that if a web site is charging for something, that the user must confirm every transaction before it happens. It must be technically infeasible for a web site (or fraudsters) to make a charge without the user's confirmation.

    Of course, if a website is charging one-tenth of a cent to view every little thing, then it shouldn't require the user to confirm every one of those tiny amounts. Instead, the web site could silently tally up the amounts and make a charge when it reaches some larger total, e.g. 10 cents. At that point the user could refuse to pay, in which case the web site would deny further access.

    Given the above guarantees, chargebacks seem unnecessary in a micropayment system. Users should have little reason to contest a charge of ten cents or even $1 that they confirmed. For large amounts, of course, chargebacks might be justified, but consumers should be expected to "swallow" small losses. If users could make unlimited chargebacks on small amounts, then vendors would have a big trust problem of their own. Also, if chargebacks were allowed, then the resultant overhead costs and legal wrangling might make a micropayment system infeasible.
As an open source developer, I wrote a program called MilliKeys for the Palm Pilot. I had been using PayPal for donations, and over the lifetime of the program, a total of 11 people donated $135, even though several thousand people downloaded it. (Donations are handled through PayPal, and I recommend a minimum donation of $5, since PayPal charges $0.75 per transaction IIRC.) What if, I wonder, I had asked for donations of 50 cents? Or even 10 cents? It's not hard to imagine that half the downloaders would have been willing to donate 10 cents, with many people willing to give 50 cents or (gasp!) a dollar. It's impossible to know how many users there are, but let's estimate 2,000 (out of 8,342 downloads.) Supposing 40% would donate 10 cents, and 10% giving 60 cents on average, that would net me $200. So even without any big donations, I could easily get more from a "dime" donation system. Note that convenience is of the utmost importance when it comes to little donations like this; preferably, whether they donate or not, the user should have to click the same number of times.

Now imagine that I could put my "free" software under a mandatory 5-cent download charge. How could I justify calling it "free", then? Well, free software is really about freedom, not just about cost. You see, my software is licenced under the GNU GPL, which means that after downloading my 5-cent software, anyone is allowed to redistribute and/or modify my software. So, someone would be fully within his rights to put up MilliKeys on another web page and offer it for free--or even charge for it, making money for himself! But since I'm charging only five cents, I would hope that most users would be willing to take me up on the offer.

If they did, then all 8,000 downloads could make five cents for me. Well, not quite. For one thing, I'd probably be willing to offer free upgrades, so that people who are re-downloading a new version get it free. That might mean 3,000 fewer payments. And, if a few hundred people (let's say 1,000 downloads worth) aren't willing to spend even five cents on my software, they could either not download it at all, or they could search the 'net for a free copy. In fact, if this micropayment system for OSS and freeware were to become ubiquitous, I fully expect that sites would appear offering zero-cost downloads. But the hope I have is that these mirror sites would not be as popular as the original source of the software. Now, will 4,000 moneymaking downloads, I'd make $200. This isn't much for the hundreds of hours of work I put into the program, but it's still more than I actually got. Anyway, I could ask for donations of $1 separately, and perhaps a large number of people would be willing to pay it, once they have tried the software and like it. If there are 200 takers, I would be up to $400 total.

Now, consider what would happen if someone wants to try to make money from my software. With a micropayment system in place, they could charge 25 cents per copy. I hypothesize that someone would not be able to charge much more than that, because otherwise users would search for a cheaper or free version. But 25 cents is still not a lot, and if some guy really wants to make money, he would have to put some effort in promoting the software--he would have to try harder than I did myself (I didn't use any advertisements). To promote it, he could
  • Place paid ads on Palm-related websites, or take advantage of Google adwords.
  • Spam. For example, he could post positive messages about it on Palm-related websites, or use old-fashioned e-mail spam. In the latter case, he's more likely to get hatemail than money, but I digress.
In all cases, the ads would bring you to his MilliKeys website, so that he can make money.

He might make money from this venture, but I wouldn't mind at all: it would be free promotion for my software, and more users makes me almost as happy as money... almost. In the end, it could bring more visitors to my website, provided that people can find my website more easily than they can find his. To this end, I could tweaking the terms of my licence agreement to ensure that no one is allowed to simply repackage my program as their own. In this way, I could ensure that the program he sells still has my web address in it (and mentions that the download price is 5 cents.) Then, when friends tell other friends about it, they are likely to send the true home page address to one another.

If free software developers were to move en-masse to a micropayment system, it would finally provide a good way for us to make money. Many free software and shareware projects enjoy millions of downloads. If these projects were to charge 5¢ per download, I think most people would pay it without thinking twice. Consumers might not even mind paying 10¢ or 15¢. The free Mozilla Firefox, which I use and recommend, has enjoyed 90 million downloads. At a mere 5¢ per download, they would make $4.5 million, which I would guess is enough to cover the cost of development.

A huge number of useful free programs don't reach a mainstream audience because the no one is willing to do the work required to increase their quality to "mainstream level"; and the reason no one is willing is because there is no way to make money. Thus, there are endless thousands of useful programs that people only work on in their spare time, since they must devote most of their time to full-time jobs. A micropayment system would finally allow many free software developers to do what they love, and buy food at the same time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Bread is dangerous!

Personally, I make a conscious effort to figure out what statistics mean and avoid being duped by them, but even so I'm surprised sometimes when I read one statistic, make a quick conclusion from it and later see another statistic that proves I misinterpreted the implications of the first.

Plus, some statistics are wrong.

Anyway, here's a page that pokes fun at statistics and is way funnier than me.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Stop the Broadcast Flag!

The big media companies tried before, when VCRs came along, to try to prevent consumers from recording TV shows. They tried it again a couple years ago, when they convinced the FCC to mandate that all new digital TV receivers must refuse to record any signal that had a "broadcast flag" set (or to output the signal in its original, high-quality compressed form). Happily, several organizations challenged the regulation in court, and weeks before the deadline for this "feature", the court found that the FCC was acting outside its authority by trying to regulate receivers in this manner.

Yup, heaven forbid we record stuff from TV or radio. Why, we might play it back later and skip the commercials! Or watch it twice! Or take a high-quality screen shot and post it on our blog! Or worst of all, put the whole darn show on the Internet, where any shmuck can watch it at any time of day. Heck, on the internet a guy can download an entire season of a cancelled classic and watch it in two days flat, instead of watching the new crappy shows the networks have lined up for us.

Yes, these are all very real possibilities. Big Media is shaking in their boots, I'm sure. But I dare anyone to cry any tears for big media. Every time a new technology comes along they cry "pirates", and indeed they exist, and always have. Heck, there are probably even more of them now. But so what? When have you ever seen one of these companies truly hurt by people recording stuff on their TiVos or sharing tapes (DVD-Rs, now) with their friends? Fact is, there are people sharing videos online all the time now, yet Big Media hardly seems hurt at all. Quite clearly, the network still have enough cash to cancel many good shows, pay to pilot dozens of new shows every year, and play episodes of new shows only once, as though to guarantee, it seems to me, that much of their potential audience will never watch the show. And the movie studios can still afford to make dozens of crappy movies per year, including the occasional huge-budget action movie with a brain-dead plot and cardboard characters.

Well, maybe those poor, poor Big Media Companies really do need protection from the Godless Masses. Maybe piracy will increase to the point where a Big Media executive will have to buy one fewer new car next year.

But hey, wouldn't it be better to wait and see? I think so. There's are many several serious problems with lawmaking the world over, one of which is doing things without evidence of necessity. Lawmakers seem to think more laws are always better, and always enact many more than they repeal. Big Media says it needs a new law to combat piracy, and lawmakers are eager to capitulate. They seem not to give a second thought about the value of actually letting ordinary citizens record stuff on TV or the radio, or about the value of delaying the law to see whether the hyped negative effects of not passing the law ever materialize.

In fact, I think our strong copyright laws, insomuch as regular people actually follow them, markedly prevent any innovation by Big Media. They want to do business as they always have. As long as these companies can live in their comfort zone, they will keep doing what they are doing: keeping prices high, funding political campaigns, and forcing people to buy "old media" such as CDs, DVDs, and cable service, when the technology for on-demand online media is already here. Protecting their comfort zone is the reason they wish to pass ever-more restrictions on digital technology.

But hold on, some might say: we don't own the copyright; why should we have any right to record anything?

Well, first, I'd remind you that we are still supposed to have something called a "fair use" right, a right whose existence is solely responsible for the fact that you can buy a VCR.

But I'd like to go deeper, and remind you that copyright is a legal system of monopoly. Copy"right" is a misnomer; copying is something we can already do without any help from the government, and the ability to copy is inherent in all digital technology. Copying stuff is a trivial operation that, at a low level in a computer, can happen a billions times per second if need be. Everything that you see on the internet is a copy, because the original is often thousands of miles away. Copyright, in fact, is about preventing others from copying stuff. It's about power and control. Most of all, t's about money.

That's not to say I'm against copyright; far from it. Authors and filmmakers and singers and programmers like me ought to have some means to make money from their craft, and to that end, it is hard to think of an alternative to copyright. But in 1790 in the U.S., copyright usually lasted 14 years, with an optional 14-year extension that could be had for a small fee. I doubt the penalty for copyright infringement was excessive then. But today, after four retroactive extensions, copyrights held by organizations and corporations last 95 years from the date of publication, attempting to circumvent any copy protection is illegal (even to exercise fair use rights) and the penalty for copyright infringement is up to $150,000 "per work" [reference]. We call it copyright, but more than anything it is the right to litigate.

Somehow, lawmakers always agree with the content owners, granting, over and over again, more and more "rights". Rights extensions have happened a couple of times historically in the U.S., but in the past 30 years there have been several large extensions to intellectual property law, including 39 years of retroactive copyright extension, the extension of patents to cover software, the DMCA, and coming soon: the broadcast flag, incarnation #2.

It's hard to understand why lawmakers take so little interest in the public interest or the public domain, and so much interest in padding the pockets of rich people and big companies. But in the case of IP law, I take heart in the words of James Boyle:
The first thing to realize is that many decisions are driven by honest delusion, not corporate corruption. The delusion is maximalism: the more intellectual property rights we create, the more innovation. This is clearly wrong; rights raise the cost of innovation inputs (lines of code, gene sequences, data.) Do their monopolistic and anti-competitive effects outweigh their incentive effects? That’s the central question, but many of our decision makers seem never to have thought of it.
This suggests we can actually make a difference if we yell loudly and longly enough to our lawmakers about this issue, in large enough numbers. They've only been hearing one side of the story--that of the big business lobbyists. Let's remind them that the end goal of copyright is to benefit society. Not just big corporations, the rich, and the lucky.

Finally, I'd like to point out that the broadcast goes against the philosophy of open-source programmers, to which I generally subscribe, as well as anyone who believes in open systems. As Wikipedia mentions,
Particularly troubling to open source developers are the Demodulator Robustness Requirements. Devices must be "robust" against user access or modifications so that someone could not easily alter it to ignore the broadcast flags that permit access to the full digital stream. Since open-source device drivers are by design user-modifiable, a PC TV tuner card with open-source drivers would not be "robust".
So if you live in the U.S.--admittedly, I don't--contact your congressman. Let him know what you think of this proposal to outlaw digital TV recordings.

P.S. Note that not all recordings are outlawed. At issue is HDTV, whose picture quality is often much higher than "regular" TV. I believe the original proposal will still allow analog output, so old VCRs would be able to record HDTV shows at "regular TV" quality; as for the new bill, the details are not available yet. Of course, HDTV recordings will still be allowed if the broadcaster turns off the flag, but it's reasonable to fear that all major broadcasters will turn it on as a matter of course. Besides preventing all recordings, the broadcast flag will probably provide for lesser restrictions such as
  • To allow a single recording for time-shifting purposes, provided that there is no way to extract the recording from the recording device except to watch it. The law could also include a time limit after which the device is required to delete the recording. A rule such as this might prevent all computer recordings, because computers are easier for their owners to crack (i.e. hack). Presumably, the law would place limitations of computer software and/or hardware to account for this.
  • To allow digital recordings at "regular TV" quality only.

Saturday, October 08, 2005


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