September 14, 2009 | By Danny O'Brien

License to Kill Innovation: the Broadcast Flag for UK Digital TV?

The British MP Tom Watson has highlighted a digital TV consultation by UK regulator Ofcom, held in response to an inquiry from the BBC (the consultation deadline is this Wednesday):

The BBC has indicated that third party content owners are seeking to ensure that reception equipment will implement ... copy protection. Because [these] requirements are not mandatory, representatives of content owners have asked the BBC to take steps to ensure that reception equipment will implement the specified content management arrangements.

Veterans of the broadcast flag battle in the United States will recognise this language: rightsholders are once again attempting to use the power of the public regulators to force universal DRM on the general public, and place their veto power over the next generation of HD digital TV technology.

In Britain, as in America, content owners who want the public to use DRM have a problem. Consumers won't reliably choose to have their TV reception limited by the demands of rightsholders - with restricted controls over recording, ad-skipping, and format-shifting. To trump consumers' wishes, rightsholders need to devise a way to make demands mandatory on consumers' technology.

In the United States, the rightsholders' plan was the "broadcast flag" — a copy-protection signal in the digital TV standard which end-manufacturers would have to implement by law, or have their products banned by the FCC. A coalition of librarians and public interest groups (including EFF) got the American broadcast flag thrown out as an overreach of the FCC's powers.

In Britain, the plan is even more convoluted. Responding to pressure from rightsholders, BBC is proposing to encode the TV listings metadata that accompanies all digital TV channels with a simple compression algorithm. The parameters to this algorithm would be kept secret by the BBC: it would ask manufacturers to sign a private agreement in order to receive a copy. This license would require the implementation of pervasive DRM in the equipment they build.

As measure against illegal copying, the plan is crazy. You don't need the metadata to record TV programs off the public airwaves. Even if you did, all you would need to unlock it is a small element, from an algorithm that was never intended to be used for confidentiality.

But then the broadcast flag was an utterly ineffective way to prevent illegal copying, too. In Britain, as in the United States, this proposal isn't about piracy. It's about creating a rightsholder veto over new consumer technologies in DTV.

No British commercial digital TV manufacturer would risk any innovation that might invalidate their "metadata compression parameter" license, and leave them open to litigation. And competition between devices would be limited by the byzantine requirements that DRM requires (it's notable that the BBC says the rightsholders demands came via the Digital Transmission Licensing Administrator (DTLA), a DRM consortium who would clearly benefit from mandatory adoption of its own system.)

In the United States, rightsholders claimed that without DRM, digital TV would herald an age of uncontrolled piracy and they would have no choice but to boycott a flag-less terrestrial digital TV transition. At the time, one of EFF's counter-arguments pointed to the movie companies' continuing involvement in an earlier, successful, and DRM-free digital TV model - in Britain, which began to switch digital TV in 2007. We called the rightsholders' bluff. Despite their bluster, they continue to participate, and profit, in both British and American digital TV markets.

It turns out that the sky does not fall if Hollywood doesn't control your home devices. The British and American experiences prove that. Ofcom and the BBC should stand firm to their commitment to the historical success and the future public interest of British terrestrial TV, and refuse to create this license to kill innovation.


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