WASHINGTON — Hollywood has loaded the bases with strategic political support for the right to protect digital broadcast programming from being copied ad infinitum or beamed out over the Internet.
On Friday, a bipartisan group of 12 Capitol Hill lawmakers sent a letter to FCC chairman Michael Powell asking for his support on the digital TV proposal, criticized for restricting otherwise free, over-the-air content.
Two-page doc was signed by Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.), chair of the powerful House Commerce Committee, and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chair of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee.
Other names among the 12 included Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). All are members of the House and Senate commerce committees.
Without copy protection, lawmakers said the foundations of over-the-air broadcast would be threatened, since content providers would be reluctant to sell to broadcasters, turning to cable instead, which is based on paid subscription.
“Congress has a long-standing commitment to free, over-the-air television,” letter stated. “And for good reason: Millions of American households, particularly those that cannot afford subscription-based services like cable and satellite, continue to rely on free-over-the-air television for their entertainment and news information.”
Signatures represented an important victory for entertainment congloms like the Walt Disney Co. and Fox, which argue it’s not enough to protect cable programming only.
Recently, the National Cable Telecommunications Assn. (NCTA) tacitly endorsed copy protection technology to be included in digital set-top boxes.
Technology would allow cablers to dictate what programming can be copied and how many times, depending upon the deal hammered out with content providers. It also could block content from being uploaded to the Internet.
The consumer electronics industry is lobbying hard to prevent broadcasting programming from being copy protected, saying it contradicts a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing consumers to copy programming for home use.
Hollywood argues otherwise, saying the technological advances of the Internet and digital TV change the definition of fair use, since programming can be made into countless perfect copies.
Recent court action involving Napster seems to back this argument, with a federal appeals court ruling that the Internet file-swapping service did not constitute fair use.
It’s unclear how Powell will respond to the March 2 letter from the Capitol Hill squadron. He has strongly hinted in recent weeks that the issue of copy protection should be resolved by lawmakers and not the FCC.
There’s also division among the studios, with Sony and Warner Bros. indicating they would accept copy protection that covered cable programming and not broadcast.
Until the issue is resolved, digital TV set manufacturers could remain in limbo, since there is no licensing agreement in place.