Will HDTV anti-piracy plan unplug digital networks?

The future of home video recording could hinge on an obscure fight between movie studios and consumer electronics makers over home networking technology.

Hollywood wants consumer electronics companies to limit how video files can be moved between entertainment devices. The move aims to prevent piracy, but it might also hamper legitimate new media and home networking pplications.

Consumer groups and studios are trading barbs over a set of proposals before the FCC that could give studios unprecedented control over digital network technologies such as firewire and wireless routers used in popular Wi-Fi networks. Hollywood's proposals would allow content owners to block recording capabilities, unilaterally turn off digital outputs deemed “unsafe,” and downrez HD images from today's analog outputs.

The fight over piracy is just one facet of the ongoing battle to control how computers and other devices can read, save and copy digital content. This particular battle is focused on digital television. But many observers say that once strong copy protection is established for one medium, it could quickly be adopted for others.

Hollywood studios and TV companies have said they can’t afford to release their best material on new high-definition digital networks if it is likely to be copied and redistributed online or elsewhere. As a result, they have successfully pressed Congress and the FCC to tag on copy-protection guarantees to several ongoing regulatory proceedings aimed at speeding digital TV to market.

That means that antipiracy protections have become inextricably tangled with new “plug-and-play” rules, allowing a broad range of consumer electronics devices to plug directly into digital cable networks, instead of just the set-top boxes of the past.

The new rules, passed provisionally in September, say that almost any device can receive and unscramble copy-protected digital cable signals — if in turn, it can ensure that the programming isn’t passed further along in unprotected digital form. That means that if a TiVo box records a digital program, it has to keep it wrapped in high-grade copy-protection in order to send it digitally to another device on a home network, for example.

In its September ruling, the FCC left several of the most controversial anti-piracy issues unresolved. The agency is expected to address them this year, which has set off a bitter lobbying battle.

One question to be answered is whether PCs, which can be easily upgraded and changed by their users, will qualify as a safe device under this copy-protection standard. If personal computers don’t make the grade, it would be a major blow for computer makers who are looking to products, such as Media Center PCs as a new source of revenue.

While the FCC has yet to rule definitively on this issue, it has hinted that it does not mean to regulate PCs completely. Most observers expect that some computing devices geared specifically for video and audio, such as Media Center PCs from Hewlett-Packard and Gateway that sport large, flat TV like screens and use a remote control as well as a keyboard, ultimately will be approved.

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