The Broadcast Flag (And Its Derivatives): A Bad Idea That Just Won't Die
In two months, two weeks and two days (as I write these words on a Wednesday evening), barring a last-minute change of plans by the FCC or another government entity, full-power over-the-air analog television transmissions will cease in the United States. I’m delighted to tell you that, in spite of my past cynical forecasts to the contrary, the ATSC digital transmissions that currently coexist in many parts of this country and that will fully supersede their NTSC predecessors on February 17th will not by law be plagued by Broadcast Flag restrictions. But I regret to inform you that the bigger-picture ‘analog hole’-plugging aspirations of content rights holders, exemplified by the Broadcast Flag, are nowhere near vanquished.
A review: the Broadcast Flag is control data embedded in an ATSC bitstream that informs a receiver whether or not the content can be transported from one device to another and/or recorded, as well as any restrictions on the transport and recording, such as:
- A requirement that the receiver be able to record the material in an encrypted fashion
- A ban on second-generation recordings, and
- A ban on transport and recordings made over non-encrypted analog or digital connections, or at minimum a forced degradation in the resolution of such recordings
Although the US courts eventually ruled that the FCC had overstated its charter in insisting on Broadcast Flag requirements, the damage had arguably already been done. Many television stations had already purchased Broadcast Flag-supportive transmission equipment. Many generations’ worth of consumer electronics gear support Broadcast Flag specifications, too, and have intentionally locked firmware so that this no-longer-necessary support can’t be removed. Even Microsoft’s Windows Media Center Edition software responds to Broadcast Flag requests, even though it’s no longer required to do so.
Consumer uproar over the Broadcast Flag occurred in general because content rights owners were insisting on restrictions of longstanding fair use rights in the analog era, rights that consumers naively believed had been permanently codified via the Betamax Decision. In actuality, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act nullified many of the Betamax provisions. And specifically, any early-adopter consumer (like me) who’d bought an expensive early-generation HDTV without HDCP-augmented digital inputs (or for that matter an expensive ATSC set-top box without encryption-enhanced digital outputs) would no longer be able to enjoy ‘H’ (high-definition) DTV in the Broadcast Flag era.
The Broadcast Flag may be extinct from an ATSC standpoint, but it’s re-emerged in the form of Selectable Output Control, associated with subscription television along with nascent and burgeoning Internet content distribution. Today, movies and other high-value video material are sequentially released in a most-to-least lucrative chronological order:
- Movie theaters
- DVD and Blu-ray purchases
- DVD and Blu-ray rentals
- Online purchases
- Online rentals
- Subscription television (cable, satellite, IPTV), and finally
- Advertising-supported ‘free’ broadcast television
Hollywood, in its ‘infinite generosity’, wants to accelerate the release of its material to the public in non-physical form (i.e. online, cable, satellite and IPTV) but as usual is paranoid about recipients being able to make and distribute perfect digital copies. Therefore contents rights owners want to be able to embed Selectable Output Control bits in the digital streams with restrictive-to-completely-blocking powers reminiscent of those in the Broadcast Flag past; downscaling or completely disabling video outputs deemed unacceptable at the time (meaning that even if HDCP is kosher today, it could be banned in the future, if some hacker ever figures out how to circumvent it)…even remotely shutting receivers completely off! And as before, Hollywood feigns bewilderment at the resultant backlash.
While there is some justification to content rights owners’ concerns regarding ‘in the clear’ digital bitstreams, in my opinion they’re overblown. Snagging an uncompressed HDMI or DisplayPort bitstream traversing the link between a set-top box and a TV, for example, would require both tremendous capture hardware speed and tremendous capture storage capacity. And don’t get me started about subsequent redistribution…at several hours-to-days per video download (in contrast to a minute or less per music track), even with modern mainstream broadband speeds and aggressive modern lossy compression schemes, there’s a fundamental reason why sites like the Pirate Bay haven’t broadened their appeal beyond a rabid ‘stick it to the Man‘ niche audience.
The so-called ‘analog hole’ is even more laughable. Analog-tethered material has to go through iterative and inevitably quality-degrading digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital conversions as part of any duplication process…a perfect digital copy it most certainly isn’t. And the analog-centric copying must occur at realtime speeds…go faster than that, and you end up with all sorts of aliasing artifacts. At two hours to make a single copy of a two-hour Hollywood blockbuster, the economics flat-out don’t pan out for any would-be pirate.
My big concern, of course, is that from an ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ perspective, once Hollywood gains the Selectable Output Control ’sword’ it’s seeking, it’ll broadly flex the resultant content restriction ‘muscle’ far beyond the ‘before DVD’ release window that it’s currently using as justification for the scheme. Physical media is dying, regardless of whether or not Selectable Output Control gets implemented. And Hollywood has given the consumer electronics industry and consumers alike plenty of past justification to not trust it this time around.
I don’t see a compelling reason for Selectable Output Control. Conversely, all I see it doing is increasing system cost and, by also increasing consumer frustration, hampering hardware and software sales along with the overall content ecosystem market size. If you agree, then I urge you to let your government representatives and FCC members hear your opinions in a loud, clear and repeated fashion, as many of you successfully did in lobbying against the Broadcast Flag.