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Group OKs TV-Piracy Safeguards

Technology: Divisions remain as studios try to keep digital broadcasts from being transmitted over the Internet.

June 05, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An effort by Hollywood studios, technology companies and electronics manufacturers to guard free television programs against piracy moved forward this week, despite some major players' objections to the process and the potential effect on consumers.

At issue is how to change TV receivers, recorders and related products so they won't enable digital TV programs to be retransmitted over the Internet. Studios, manufacturers and tech companies started the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group seven months ago to float their ideas and search for common ground.

The co-chairmen of the group issued their final report Monday, saying "substantial agreement" had been reached on many key issues. These included a requirement that any digital recording or transmission of digital TV programs be protected with a pre-approved scrambling technology.

However, the report also indicates that no such agreement could be reached on "a number of significant points," including the scope of the problem.

"There were at least as many significant issues left in disagreement ... as were actually agreed upon," said Andy Moss, technical policy director for the Windows division of Microsoft Corp. "While a lot has been accomplished, there's still a big challenge in front of us to do something useful with that information. There's no consensus, and there are many ambiguities."

Co-chairmen of the group said critics exaggerated the divisions.

"There is substantial agreement on everything but a couple of items," said Andy Setos, president of engineering for Fox Group. Those "small gaps" can be bridged as discussions continue, he said.

"I think we have identified a number of technology solutions to accomplish the goal," said Robert A. Perry, vice president of marketing for Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America Inc. "We are not really creating a standard. What we are creating are some public-policy alternatives."

The report moves on to another inter-industry group that will discuss how to implement and enforce the proposed protections. Ultimately, advocates say, either Congress or federal regulators will have to adopt rules requiring digital TV products to include technology to protect programs from being redistributed over the Internet.

The protections are important to Hollywood studios because online piracy is burgeoning. If the studios aren't assured that their most valuable programming will be protected, they won't make it available to over-the-air broadcasters, said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

Some lawmakers also are concerned that the transition to digital broadcasting is being hampered by studios withholding top-quality programming. Stations were supposed to complete the switch by 2006, but the deadline could be pushed back if consumers don't embrace the new technology.

Critics of the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group said it should have tried to achieve a formal consensus through open meetings. Although supporters of the report said it took pains to preserve consumers' recording rights, some consumer advocates argued that the proposals would make TV programs recorded digitally onto DVD incompatible with DVD players.

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