MPAA continues fight to control home recording

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), not one to give up easily, is continuing its Bush-era campaign to control what television programs users can and cannot record at home. The issue at hand is Selectable Output Control (SOC), a technology mandate promoted to “protect” the early distribution of movies over cable television.

The MPAA has asked the FCC for permission to engage SOC on televisions, cable boxes and DVRs. If the FCC agrees, the MPAA and the movie studios it represents (Paramount, Sony, Fox, Universal, Disney and Warner Brothers) would be able to “turn off” any analog output they choose during special video-on-demand movies on cable television.

The MPAA’s request is opposed by a wide group of public advocates — including Public Knowledge, the Consumer Federation of America, the Digital Freedom Campaign, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Media Access Project, New America Foundation and U.S. PIRG. The groups filed comments urging the FCC to deny the MPAA’s request.

The MPAA’s request affects users of TiVo, Slingbox or television sets manufactured before 2004. It also affects equipment owners without HDMI who connect their TV sets to cable boxes with analog cables. Equipment replacement would be required by users to watch the movies the MPAA wants to control.

Currently, the MPAA and most movie studios allow users to rent a video-on-demand movie on cable only after it has already come out on DVD. They won’t release the movies on-demand earlier because they’re afraid of home copying.

Home viewers can legally make copies for personal use by using analog outputs because those outputs don’t have copy protection built in. SOC turns off the analog outputs, preventing recording. All equipment with HDMI has copy protection.

The public interest groups said the MPAA’s request is so vaguely written that it would allow the studios to turn off all outputs on a cable box. Viewers would then have to buy a new TV with an “MPAA-approved” output plug if they wanted to watch on-demand movies before they come out on DVD.

In the early 1980s, the MPAA led efforts to suppress the videocassette recorder (VCR). In Congressional hearings in 1982, then MPAA president Jack Valenti denounced the “savagery and the ravages of this machine” and likened its effect on the film industry and the American public to the Boston strangler.