Flag Rebellion: Build Your Own Recorder

In the beginning, the selling points of digital television were clear and simple--big, beautiful pictures; rich, opulent sound; and an endless well of programs that could be watched on-demand at any time of the day or night.

Yes, it might be expensive, but who could argue that DTV wouldn't be a giant leap ahead in the television-viewing experience?

As with so many things in life, reality is starting to nibble at the dream. Ordinary viewers are discovering that DTV is no free lunch. Yet for many--especially home theater enthusiasts--that's OK. Free TV was always a bit of a myth anyway.

However, a big DTV "gotcha"--a snake now quietly hidden in the grass--won't raise its head until next summer. When it does, expect a big bang from viewers who will rightfully feel deceived and ripped off by the world's largest media companies.


The acronym for this big snake is DRM--Digital Rights Management. It takes many forms, but in the world of terrestrial television broadcasting it will come as a "flag" that can determine what a viewer can and cannot freely do with a television program.

For the first time, DRM allows program creators to set the viewing rules. For example, program producers can insert the "flag" in a broadcast and have it limit viewers' rights to record and play that program back in an unrestricted way on their own equipment. The simple act of time-shifted recording--long the legal right of the viewer--will require permission.

Thanks to the FCC, the flag will be raised in DTV broadcasts beginning in July 2005. When devices detect the flag, they have to "protect" (i.e., lock up in DRM jail) the programming. At that point, the power will shift from the viewer to the content owner.

By next summer, it will be illegal to manufacture or import DTV receivers unless they include DRM technology mandated by the FCC. This means that DRM will be a standard feature on all future televisions, TiVos, and computers built to decode DTV content.

As policy, this can all be made to sound reasonable when smothered in language about preventing illegal copying and theft of intellectual property. The problem is that the media companies are making a wholesale power grab to deny television rights that legitimate viewers have long held and enjoyed; not to mention these restrictive measures will do nothing to halt serious content pirates.

One would think these content owners had learned a lesson from the arrogance of the major record labels, which have turned a generation of potential customers into angry enemies that despise their very existence.

Television viewers, who will be made to feel like criminals by these tactics, will have every right and reason to rebel against the broadcast industry when the flag is raised.

Remember, if some of the same media companies had their way back in the mid-1970s, there would have been no VCR. The Betamax and VHS recorders became popular only after a federal court prevented the studios from blocking sales to the public.

As usual, this reversal of viewer rights is happening without the knowledge of the general public. Just as with the attempted media ownership rule change last year, our government's policy-makers would rather have us find out about such matters after they have been etched in legal stone.

Fortunately, advocates for TV viewers are now sounding warnings about these onerous FCC policy changes. Just as they went to court to successfully block the ownership rules, a wake-up call is going out over DRM's effect on viewer rights in the era of over-the-air DTV.

One of the top advocacy groups for TV viewers is the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization of lawyers and volunteers whose goal is to protect the digital rights of ordinary citizens during the wave of change from analog to digital technology.

The EFF has attacked the broadcast flag initiative as a "holdup" by large media companies who have "threatened" to derail the DTV transition by withholding "high-value content" from over-the-air DTV, unless the FCC imposed "content protection" (yes, DRM) on all future televisions and related devices."

The good news is a public campaign has begun to tell viewers how they can protect their rights. The name of the EFF's initiative has reverberations of the 1960's--it's called the Television Liberation Digital Front. The Web site is: www.eff.org/broadcastflag/.


The key message is this: Viewers have until July 2005 to buy, build and sell fully-capable, nonflag-compliant HDTV receivers. Any receivers built now will remain functional under a flag regime. No new equipment will be needed in the foreseeable future.

It should also be noted that any devices made this year can be re-sold in the future. (One can imagine eBay fortunes being made on stockpiled devices for years to come.)

While a homebrew solution won't help with cable or satellite TV programming (which has its own unique DRM), it will allow over-the-air viewers to retain their freedom to make digital recordings and copies of network TV programs.

The EFF campaign seeks to preserve the right to time- and space-shift material that the VCR has long provided.

"We want to keep the fair-use rights that let us excerpt clips from press conferences or make our own 'Daily Show' from the evening news. That's why we're encouraging people to buy HDTV tuner cards now and build multifunction receivers and recorders around them," the EFF said.

Do-it-yourself enthusiasts need to get a DTV tuner card that ignores the broadcast flag. One source is www.pcHDTV.com , a Web site that offers an HD-capable (ATSC) tuner card with Linux drivers for less than $200.

The MythTV project ( www.mythtv.org ) built a personal video recorder platform that gives a GNU/Linux PC features like TiVo's live-TV pause and "season pass" recording.

Admittedly, these are solutions for geeks. However, there are expected to be a growing number of alternatives for Windows and Macintosh computers in the coming year. The EFF is seeking engineering volunteers to help make these complex products accessible to more people without technical skills.

It is sad that DTV has come to this, but the time has long passed when commercial television had anything to do with serving the public interest.

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.