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HDTV Latest Arena for Studios' Piracy Fight

March 29, 2003|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

Hollywood studios urged federal regulators Friday not to outlaw two controversial anti-piracy techniques, even though those techniques could prevent millions of consumers from receiving some digital television programs.

The filing by the Motion Picture Assn. of America indicates that a new battle over copy protection has begun among the studios, cable TV operators and set manufacturers. This time, the battlefield is the Federal Communications Commission's proposed rule for a new type of digital TV set that can receive cable programs without a set-top box.

Studios want cable and satellite operators to scramble some high-definition programs to prevent pirates from copying and distributing them. But the FCC proposal would mandate that shows be available unscrambled.

More than 5 million U.S. consumers own high-definition television sets, which can cost $1,000 or more but deliver richly detailed pictures. Most of those sets, however, can't display shows that have been scrambled.

Officials at the MPAA said they don't want to turn anyone's HDTV set into a blank screen, but they want to preserve their ability to negotiate deals with cable and satellite operators to protect against piracy. For example, the MPAA wants to preserve the ability to send a "constrained" image through unscrambled outputs that has less detail and color depth than HDTV but more than a conventional picture.

The proposed rule also would require cable and satellite operators to let viewers make at least one copy of all but the most premium programs, such as pay-per-view movies.

But studios say such government mandates on copying and anti-piracy measures would prevent the nascent market for digital entertainment from coming up with better solutions. MPAA officials contend that studios should be free to choose among various anti-piracy solutions offered by cable, satellite and other media outlets.

But Robert A. Perry, marketing vice president for Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America Inc., said studios just want to play cable and satellite companies against one another to get the most restrictions on copying.

"They don't really support home recording rights," Perry said.

Over the long term, Perry said, manufacturers will find a way to eliminate unscrambled connectors to help deter piracy. But in the meantime, their concern is not to "break faith" with the earliest supporters of digital TV, the consumers who bought sets before they had digital connectors that can accept a scrambled signal, he said.

The anti-piracy provisions are critical to set makers and cable operators alike. Consumer electronics companies believe their TV business will be less valuable if consumers can't easily receive and record shows freely. And cable companies want anti-piracy rules to apply equally to their competitors in the satellite business.

Satellite operators and consumer advocacy groups also have taken issue with the copy-protection provisions. Consumer groups object to the proposed restrictions on copying, and the satellite operators don't want limits on anti-piracy methods.

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