Final ThoughtThe Unpluggable Hole

The draft DTV legislation revealed by the House in September had some strong language. For example, there was its shocking call to end analog TV broadcasting before 2007 no matter what. Few commented, however, on perhaps the most devastating words of all in the document: "The regulations promulgated pursuant to subsection (a) shall...provide for the termination of the manufacture of equipment that has analog outputs by July 1, 2005."

What equipment? "...all digital devices that are capable of demodulating an incoming modulated digital terrestrial broadcast television signal, or the transmission of such signal by a multichannel video programming distributor..." That would include TV sets, VCRs, cable TV set-top boxes, computers with TV tuners, and presumably, someday, even satellite TV receivers.

What analog outputs? Video and audio, headphone, channel 3/4 RF, and any other non-digital (and therefore unprotected) output.

Protected? Yes. Digital outputs÷IEEE-1394 and DVI/HDMI÷include schemes to prevent recordings or retransmissions, should that be the program rights-holder's desire.

The elimination of analog broadcasts after 2007 might force millions to buy set-top digital receivers. The elimination of analog outputs would affect hundreds of millions of people. To watch TV at all, everyone would have to replace all analog TV equipment, just to satisfy those rights-holders.

It seems like 1976, again, when Disney and Universal brought suit against Sony (and other defendants) to prohibit the sale of the VCR and its use to make recordings of copyrighted materials. That case was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court in 1984÷in favor of home video.

Legal issues aside, unfortunately it seems that Disney and Universal had a better technical case in 1976 than all of the digital rights management (DRM) fanatics have today. If the VCR were to have been banned back then, it truly would have put a stop to home video (which, considering how much of Disney and Universal's income is based on that sector, might have driven those companies out of business). But, if digital outputs are protected and analog outputs are banned, that will prove only a minor inconvenience to pirates.

Data can certainly be protected. People use ATMs secure in the knowledge that some computer hacker isn't draining their accounts by eavesdropping on the data connection.

Digital video and audio are data and can similarly be encrypted. But pictures and sounds are not. DTV is secure only up to the moment that anyone is allowed to see and hear it. Anything that can be seen or heard can be stolen. Ask any spy. How can it be stolen? The simplest technique is just to aim a camcorder at the screen and place a microphone in front of a speaker. Many of the pirated movies available today were captured by just such a method.

Do you think the quality will be insufficient? In 1971, Computer Television, one of the companies that founded the in-room hotel movie industry, transferred its films to video by projecting them onto a wall and shooting them with a camera. And customers paid to watch.

It's now 31 years later, and video camera progress shows no sign of stopping. At the CEATEC show in Japan this fall, JVC showed a consumer HDTV camcorder. In their lab, the same company has a camera with four times the detail of even HDTV. And JVC has already been selling a camcorder that can stream directly to the Internet.

This fall, Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, responded to proposed legislation that would maintain viewers' copying rights even in the digital era. "Content owners would be given a Hobson's choice of protecting their valuable works by not making them available in digital formats or losing all control over unauthorized reproduction and distribution."

He also said, "The public in the final end may be the loser because programs do not come from the tooth fairy. They come from people who have risked money up front, hoping they can recoup it somewhere down that marketing line." That he said 23 years ago, when he was trying to help stop home video.

Some things never change.

Mark Schubin is an engineering consultant with a diverse range of clients, from the Metropolitan Opera to Sesame Workshop.