Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Studios Lose a Round on Selectable Output Control; So Do Consumers

From the LA Times' Tech Blog comes word (via Broadcasting and Cable) that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin does not support the MPAA's petition to allow "Selectable Output Control" ("SOC"), an anti-piracy technique whereby content owners could selectively block use of unprotected analog outputs from home entertainment devices, such as cable boxes. According to the Times, this "means the studios will have to try again with Martin's replacement."

Here's the background: the studios want to introduce a new video-on-demand service where they would stream hi-def movies to consumers' homes, even before the DVD release. Of course, they're concerned that these movies not be pirated, thus eating into both VOD and DVD sales -- perhaps even theatrical. With SOC (banned by the FCC since 2003), the studios offering these movies could signal via technical means that a consumer could not zap the movie out of his cable box's analog outputs, to, say record it on a DVD or hard drive (this is a bit beyond my technical knowledge, but it's my understanding that the digital outputs that would be used to transmit the movie to a TV are generally already protected). In their petition, the studios signal that they won't offer such hi-def early-window VOD services without SOC.

So why does Martin oppose SOC? B&C reports that his opposition "stemmed from consumer groups' concerns that the waiver could undermine efforts to open cable platforms to competitive set-top devices, something Martin has pushed for." I don't get that; why would SOC necessarily get in the way of allowing consumers to choose different STBs? And it's not really the argument that the "consumer groups" (read "copyleft") make. Rather, they simply oppose giving "control" to their opponents in the entertainment industry. As the EFF explained in announcing its opposition to the MPAA petition:
The MPAA's goal here seems clear: Increase its members' control over how you choose to watch their material. As the opposition we joined puts it, "Granting the waiver would put MPAA member companies on the path to controlling what types of connections will be used by all U.S. consumers, and to profiting from that control."
But the copyleft/consumer groups' position on SOC actually harms consumers rather than helps them. Today the studios don't offer pre-DVD hi-def VOD. If SOC comes to be, they will, and consumers will have an additional choice in home-movie viewing. If the copyleft succeeds in continuing to block SOC, they won't. And how exactly are consumers better off when the government takes steps that result in the studios offering them fewer choices?

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