Public Knowledge, joined by EFF as well as the Consumer Federation of America, the Digital Freedom Campaign, the Media Access Project, the New America Foundation and U.S. PIRG, yesterday filed an opposition [PDF] to the MPAA's FCC petition seeking a waiver of the ban against selectable output controls (SOC) (we have an explanation of what a "selectable output control" is on our Digital Video issue page).
EFF has long opposed selectable output controls. The basic premise of those who back SOC is that content owners should be able to decide not just who can watch their content, but how they can watch it. You want to watch my new movie on that digital TV you bought a few years ago? No, sorry, I don't like your TV (perhaps because I'm afraid of the analog component inputs it uses). You want to space-shift using your Slingbox (which lacks DRM-enabling controls on its outputs)? Oh, no, I don't think that's a good idea. You were hoping to TiVo that show that's on this afternoon so that you can watch it when you get home from work? Hm, not unless you upgrade to a new TiVo, because I won't allow the signal to make it to TiVos that don't have digital outputs. You want to record that program so that you can make a fair use of an excerpt? Dear dear, we can't have that.
Seems kind of crazy, no? That's what the FCC thought, too, which was why the agency forbade use of SOC when it last addressed this issue, in 2003. The FCC concluded that multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs - companies like cable television providers) can't "attach or embed data or information with commercial audiovisual content . . . so as to prevent its output through any analog or digital output authorized or permitted under license, law or regulation governing such covered product."
Well, the MPAA is taking another crack at the issue, asking the FCC to grant it a permanent waiver from the SOC ban, to allow it to apply SOC to recently released movies that are being distributed to homes via video on demand. 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." The opposition offers this example of what this could mean:
A model of how this would work can already be seen. Sony Pictures recently announced it will be offering its new movie, Hancock, to some Sony television owners equipped with Sony’s Internet media connection before release on DVD and other home media. However, the movie will only be available to those who own the Sony box, and will only flow over Sony’s proprietary video connection to a Sony TV. This model could easily be extended to MVPDs by leveraging SOC controls - if the Commission grants this waiver.
Right now, your consumer electronics are designed by the consumer electronics industry, which reacts to consumer market demand in choosing how to innovate. That consumer-focused approach makes sense. But if the MPAA has its way, however, we'll be well on the way to a world in which every new feature to every home theater product has to be pre-approved by the content industry.