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Digital plan to be universal

Eisner to plead case in D.C. for Hollings bill

NEW YORK — Mouse House topper Michael Eisner is expected to travel to Capitol Hill next month to plug landmark legislation that would force the private sector to devise a universal standard for protecting content in the digital age.

The legislation, being drafted by Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-N.C.), could ultimately mean that digital TVs, digital set-top boxes, computers and DVD players will all have the same security technology.

The legislation could help break the logjam that is impeding the rollout of digital TV, video-on-demand and other new services.

Hollywood is skittish about making its libraries available in the digital arena barring certain copy protection. But bringing the long arm of the government into the debate is likely to ring alarm bells in the consumer electronics industry, among other groups.

October hearing

Hollings, who chairs the influential Senate Commerce Committee, is tentatively scheduled to hold a hearing on his copy protection legislation in early October, with Eisner topping the list of witnesses, according to entertainment execs following the issue.

The legislation, yet to be introduced, would give the private sector a year to devise a security standard. If progress is being made, a government org known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology would grant a six-month extension.

If private efforts lead to naught, the government would create the security standard instead.

Eisner’s empire is leading the fight to ensure that movies and other valuable programming aren’t hijacked when carried into American homes via digital TV.

Assurance sought

Specifically, Disney wants assurances that over-the-air broadcast will be afforded a certain amount of copy protection. Otherwise, the Mouse House and other studios will license their fare to cablers only, cutting broadcasters out of the mix and thus depriving Americans still relying on rabbit ears.

Blocking a consumer from copying broadcasted programming has been a hot topic since the advent of home recording devices. When dictating the rules of the road in the analog age, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that consumers must be allowed to make personal copies.

Entertainment congloms say those rules now need tweaking due to the top quality of digital programming, as well as the speed and ease of transmitting programming over the Internet.

This summer, Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures Entertainment broke from the other five majors and signed an agreement with digital TV manufacturers that protects only cable programming.

Hollings’ draft legislation, a copy of which was obtained by Daily Variety, would cover much more ground than digital TV sets.

Essentially, the bill would afford protection to content traveling via all sorts of digital vehicles, including the Internet. Again, Disney and Fox have been insistent that illegal transmission of digital TV programs over the Internet be prevented.

As regards the home-recording issue, the draft legislation does contain an important concession in stating that the consumers shouldn’t be stopped from making a copy of an over-the-air broadcast or basic cable show.”It’s the soul of reasonableness,” said a Hollywood exec in referring to the bill.

It is not clear when Hollings will introduce the legislation — before or after the hearing.

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