The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has approved the "broadcast
flag" scheme put forth by the MPAA and its associates. Details can be
found on the FCC site in the form of a
- both in PDF format.
Why do we need a digital broadcast flag? From the order:
In this report and order, we conclude that the potential threat of
mass indiscriminate redistribution will deter content owners from
making high value digital content available through broadcasting
outlets absent some content protection mechanism. Although the
threat of widespread indiscriminate retransmission of high value
digital broadcast content is not imminent, it is forthcoming and
preemptive action is needed to forestall any potential harm to the
viability of over-the-air television.
So "mass indiscriminate redistribution" is not a problem now, but
preemptive action is the way of things in the US these days, so we have to
mandate copy protection mechanisms for transmissions on our public
The actual broadcast flag rule, as found in page 40 of the order document,
states that a digital TV demodulator cannot send unprotected content to any
output, except in a set of specific cases:
- Analog output continues to be allowed.
- Specific digital output formats which much maintain the presence of
the broadcast flag.
- Digital outputs are allowed if they are protected by an "Authorized
Digital Output Protection Technology." Encrypted output to devices
which also follow the broadcast flag rules is allowed as well.
- Output to a recording device is allowed - but, of course, that device,
too, must implement an "Authorized Recording Method."
- Digital output from computers is allowed as long as the resolution of
the image is reduced to no more than 350,000 pixels per frame.
The FCC repeatedly asserts that home recording will not be affected by
the broadcast flag. The rules, however, do place significant constraints
on digital recordings. In particular, the resulting recording cannot be
transferable to another device, or the recorder must be explicitly
"authorized" by the FCC. The MPAA had pushed hard for the "authorization"
mechanism to require, among other things, approval by at least two "major
studios," but the FCC, at least didn't buy that. Instead, there will be an
involved bureaucratic process where manufacturers of recorders have to show
the FCC how their product will implement copy protection schemes.
Much debate evidently went into the specification of "robustness rules."
The MPAA wanted an extensive set of regulations on things like "how content may
be transmitted on data paths within Demodulator Products" and such, an an
effort to make circumvention as difficult as possible. The FCC, however,
concluded that a level of robustness sufficient to defeat an "ordinary
user" would be enough. Interestingly, the FCC uses the CSS scheme used on
DVDs as an example:
Although the CSS copy protection system for DVDs has been "hacked"
and circumvention software is available on the Internet, DVDs
remain a viable distribution platform for content owners. The CSS
content protection system serves as an adequate "speed bump" for
most consumers, allowing the continued flow of content to the DVD
One might have just as easily concluded that a copy protection (and "region
coding" price support) scheme like
CSS was unnecessary in the first place, but the FCC wasn't willing to go
The resulting "robustness requirements" say that the broadcast flag scheme
must be implemented in products in a way that can't be defeated or
circumvented by "an ordinary user using generally-available tools or
equipment." Examples of such tools, as listed in the regulation, include
screwdrivers, jumpers, clips, soldiering irons, EEPROM writers, debuggers,
This rule will have an obvious effect on free software - under the
broadcast flag provisions, there simply cannot be a free TV demodulator
system. Even if somebody wrote a free system which implemented the
broadcast flag restrictions, a source-available system clearly would not
meet the "robustness requirements." The FCC report does, at least, note
In response to our Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, EFF questioned
the impact of a flag based regime on innovations in software
demodulators and other DTV open source software applications... We
seek further comment on the interplay between a flag redistribution
control system and the development of open source software
applications, including software demodulators, for digital
Given that the FCC seeks further comments, the free software community
would be well advised to provide them with those comments. The Electronic comment filing system
can be used for this purpose (the docket number for the report is 02-230).
The chances of getting any sort of free software exemption to the broadcast
flag requirements appear slim, however. The MPAA might not have gotten
everything it wanted out of the FCC - thanks to the efforts of the EFF and
many others - but that organization remains the driving force behind the
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