MPAA sked on hi-def

Kennard calls for consensus on copyright agreement

CHICAGO — FCC chairman Bill Kennard accused the MPAA Tuesday of dragging its feet on a key copyright agreement, which is needed before studios will allow their most valuable movies to be distributed on cable in the high definition format.

The issue: the copyright protection of movies displayed on digital television sets. So far, said Kennard, the Motion Picture Assn. of America won’t even agree to a timetable to resolve the topic. He made his comments at the annual National Cable Television Assn. confab now under way in Chicago.

Film biz fears pirates

Digital TVs make the movie industry nervous because they are capable of displaying a high definition picture that could be used by pirates to create a limitless number of perfect copies.

Television set makers and the cable industry have agreed to file with the FCC by July 1 a schedule for resolving several compatibility issues, including the copyright matter.

Speaking to a room full of cable execs, Kennard said that the MPAA had unfortunately decided not to follow the lead of the cable industry and the Consumer Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Assn. “Instead, they have chosen to delay.”

If the industries fail to reach an agreement on the copyright issue, Kennard threatened to impose one. “Don’t put us in a position where we have to send in an army of FCC lawyers and engineers to work out these compatibility issues,” he warned.

Pushing digital transition

Kennard is doing his best to prod the television industry to make the transition from the current analog standard to digital. Kennard and others worry that the transition will be slowed if programmers refuse to make the highest quality programming available in the digital format. Set makers are also banking on the new digital formats to spur sales of millions of new TVs.

Kennard’s statement was triggered by a letter he received from MPAA topper Jack Valenti last week. In the letter, Valenti said the top Hollywood studios won’t make their most valuable product — the latest, highest grossing movies — available until an agreement on copyright protection is reached.

In its refusal to sign on to the schedule, the MPAA cites its ongoing negotiations with the five companies who developed the copyright protection technology: Sony, Hatachi, Matsushita, Toshiba and Intel. The companies are known collectively as “5C.”

Without an agreement, said Valenti, digital TV sets can’t be considered cable ready “because they will not be able to receive, display or transfer high-value copy-protected programming.”

No protection, no cable

Despite the hoopla over the first generation of high definition television sets, few people realize that the $7,000 sets can not be plugged into a cable system.

In a letter to Kennard, MPAA topper Jack Valenti said the major studios have confidence in the copyright technology developed by Intel and TV set makers. He also noted that the TV industry will make no effort to block its deployment in television sets.

But the MPAA is concerned that the companies that developed the copyright technology don’t want it to be used to block consumers from using it to make copies of over-the-air television and basic cable. Current copyright law places no limits on the number of copies a consumer can make from broadcast and basic cable TV. The owners of the copyright technology insist that they are just making sure that current copyright law is extended into the digital age.

The MPAA insists that the owners of the programming — not the companies who created the copyright technology — should decide how and by whom it may be copied.

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