Revenge Of The Nerds?

You’d have to have been on a news-free island for the past year to avoid having heard about rights and digital television. On the other hand, if you’ve followed most of the news about the subject, you’ve probably heard only one side of the story.
Digital rights management (DRM) deals with making sure that the owners of the rights to movies and television programming get paid and can control what happens to their material (e.g., copying, Internet retransmission, home networking, etc.). The “broadcast flag,” CableCARD, DTCP, HDCP, etc. are all mechanisms intended to control what viewers can see or do with digital television content.
Some broadcasters have been strong supporters of DRM. CBS even threatened to cease HDTV transmissions unless the “broadcast flag” was implemented (they relented—or at least postponed their decision). After all, a lot of work went into the intellectual property being protected, and the creators deserve compensation.
It might seem strange, therefore, that last month the Technical Committee of the World Broadcasting Unions (WBU-TC) issued a press release saying that payments demanded for intellectual property associated with digital television were “extremely onerous” and that users “should be exempted from charges.” Does this indicate a reversal of position? Will the “broadcast flag” be waived instead of waved? Alas, no.
Broadcasters (at least some of them) still want to be paid for their intellectual property. What they don’t want to do is pay for others’ intellectual property.
Others, in this case, are the owners of the patent rights to the technology involved in the advanced video codec (AVC) developed by the joint video team (JVT) and standardized as H.264 by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and MPEG-4 Part 10 by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Standardization Organization (ISO). Those patent-rights owners are divided into two major pools, one administered by MPEG LA and the other by Via Licensing.
Just as the idea of restricting Internet retransmission of television programming is shocking to some, the initial AVC licensing terms were also shocking to some. There were all sorts of fees to which broadcasters had not previously been subjected.
The WBU-TC June 3 press release notes, however, that on May 18 MPEG LA modified its terms “to include the option of paying a one-time fee of US$2,500 for each encoder used in transmitting MPEG-4 AVC video for free broadcast television.” That’s what the committee finds “extremely onerous.”
It’s certainly a significant amount of money, but a significant amount of work was put into AVC—work from which the broadcasters want to benefit. They are not required to use AVC. They currently use MPEG-2, the efficiency of which has improved perhaps threefold since it was introduced. They can choose to use other advanced compression systems with more attractive licensing terms.
As a matter of fact, broadcasters have made similar arguments in favor of the access-controlling “broadcast flag.” Rights holders want compensation for what they put into their programming. If users want to post things on the Internet, they can find unrestricted programming elsewhere.
The arguments sound a lot like those of children yelling “Mine! Mine! Mine!” at one another. Of course, the word has multiple meanings. There’s the personal possessive of the intellectual property rights holders. There’s the digging action that free-information proponents feel they are entitled to use no matter who owns the area being excavated. And then there’s the military term used for protective measures that often return to haunt the landscape when least expected.
Those last are highly destructive. Perhaps it’s best to avoid “mine”-ing in the first place.