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.

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