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Proposed Treaty on TV Signals Spurs Criticism

September 13, 2006|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The proposal sounds modest enough: Broadcasters want to stop international pirates from hijacking American TV signals and re-transmitting them over the Internet.

But the high-tech industry and digital rights advocates see something more sinister in the fine print of a proposed international treaty being negotiated this week in Geneva. They fear it will end up restricting how people can use legally recorded shows stashed on their TiVos or computer hard drives.

"When I look at the language of the treaty, I begin to get frightened," said Jim Burger, an attorney who specializes in intellectual property issues and represents high-tech companies, including TiVo Inc.

Pushed by U.S. and European TV networks, the treaty being considered by a World Intellectual Property Organization committee would prohibit the theft of their signals, as well as those from cable and satellite broadcasters. TV broadcasters said they were not targeting average viewers recording their favorite shows, just large-scale thieves stealing their business.

"If you send our signal ... to 100,000 people so it ruins our ability to market our signals, we ought to be able to prohibit that," said Ben Ivins, senior associate general counsel for the National Assn. of Broadcasters, which has been pressing for the treaty for several years.

But in what is shaping up as the next major battle in the fight over digital content, a coalition of phone companies, information technology firms and digital rights advocates warn the proposed treaty could do much more and is working to derail it.

The treaty's broad language would create an expansive new copyright on TV signals that could lead to higher prices and more restrictions on home recording. Watching shows on a digital video recorder, transmitting a football game to a laptop via services such as SlingBox or simply moving video from one device to another in a home network would technically be considered a retransmission that requires the broadcaster's OK.

Critics say it's another desperate attempt by the broadcast industry to use legislation to restrict technological innovation and keep a dying business model on life support. The pattern, they say, stretches all the way back to the battle over the first Betamax video recorders when the industry fought new technology with legislation and lawsuits.

The entertainment industry has sought legislative intervention in the face of other technological advances. The advent of the VCR led to a suit over time shifting that it ultimately lost before the Supreme Court in 1984.

More recently, the creation of digital TV led broadcasters to press Congress to require anti-copying technology, called the broadcast flag, be embedded in the signal. Congress has resisted. It's also failed to take up a push by movie studios for legislation to plug a technological hole that allows people to bypass copy protection on DVDs.

Treaty foes said broadcasters could use the new copyright as leverage to strike more favorable licensing deals with manufacturers or to force them to build in blocking technology, such as preventing a recorded show from being burned to a DVD.

"Many believe that the broadcasters see this exclusive right as a way to protect an industry that is rapidly being eclipsed by technological development," said Matthew Schruers, senior counsel for litigation and legislative affairs at the Computer & Communications Industry Assn., an industry trade group. "There is a fear that right could prevent the use of cool new devices because people can't license them or because the broadcasters don't want to license them."

The coalition boasts major companies such as AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., Intel Corp. and Dell Inc. Verizon acknowledged that the treaty could be a help as it rolls out cable TV service, but it worries that the company's larger business of Internet access could suffer because of potential liability for illegal retransmissions.

"The reason why they want this right ... is they can get additional money out of players they haven't been able to charge before," Sarah Deutsch, Verizon's vice president and associate general counsel, said of traditional broadcasters. "The whole concept of giving an intellectual property right to a signal is ridiculous."

Under the proposed treaty, the broadcaster of a TV signal -- over the air or via satellite or cable -- would get a 50-year copyright. The right would be in addition to the copyright already given to a program's creator.

The retransmission of TV signals is illegal under U.S. law. But many countries give stronger protection to broadcast signals under a 1961 treaty that the U.S. never joined. The World Intellectual Property Organization, an agency of the United Nations based in Geneva, has been trying to update that treaty for the digital age.

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