Happy Anniversary to You, You Belong in a Zoo!

You might not have noticed that you don't get asked the Two Questions at airline ticket counters anymore. And, if you're like me, maybe you feel a little more secure as a result.
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SOMEWHERE OUT THEREYou might not have noticed that you don't get asked the Two Questions at airline ticket counters anymore. And, if you're like me, maybe you feel a little more secure as a result.

This month's rant is going to wend its way around to DTV sooner or later. But first I thought I might spend a moment or three on those little pop travel quizzes.

I mean, normally I'm a real stickler for accuracy (whatever a stickler is). So my great temptation, each time the perky young agent (or someone looking more like me) would ask, "Has anyone unknown to you asked you to carry an item on this flight?" was to say, "If it was unknown to me, how could I know?" But fearing indefinite detention as a nonexistent enemy combatant, I just joined the crowd and always said, "No."

Likewise, when asked, "Have any of the items you are traveling with been out of your immediate control since the time you packed them?" even if my butler/valet/significant-other/shipping-department crew did the packing, and even if they got to me via UPS, I always said, "No." So, I feel a lot more secure now, if only in the knowledge that it's much less likely that I will spend the rest of my nonexistent life in a cell on account of being unable to restrain my principles.

I was amazed - no, make that floored - that the Transportation Security Administration (yes, there is such a thing) got rid of the questions late this summer as a result of its "stupid rule review." I am not making this up; that's what they called it.

How come they got rid of the questions? They say it's on account of them never having had the slightest effect on security. They'd probably have done better with "Are you a terrorist?" and "Even if you're not a terrorist, is there some other reason we shouldn't let you on the plane?"

WHAT, ME WORRY?

Anyhow, that ain't what I wanted to rant about this month. I get the willies (whatever willies are) thinking about all the things that can go wrong with a flight. Come to think about it, I get the willies thinking about all the things wrong with the DTV transition, too.

I mean, Peter Chernin, head of the company that ought to be known as Fox, told the Hollywood Radio and Television Society last month about one part of DTV that "There is no more important issue facing every person in this room." Death? Taxes? The location of the nearest toilet?

"No, Mario, you said it was something to do with DTV."

Oh, yeah. Right. Reception problems? Insufficient stations meeting the May 1 deadline? Costly equipment? Fox not carrying HD? Consumer apathy?

Nope. It was none of the above. THE most important DTV issue facing every person in that room, according to Mr. Fox, was digital rights management.

Well, now, I've got two stupid questions for him about that. But, on account of he's not here right now, I'll ask them to you.

1. Have you been in a bookstore lately?

2. Have you seen a DAT recorder in a consumer-electronics shop?

Humor me. If I've gone off the deep end, I probably did it a long time ago. I promise you this is relevant.

There are sure enough plenty of problems in the bookstore business. One problem is if you're an independent shop sitting between a Barnes & Noble Godzilla on one side and a Borders Mothra on the other. And let's not forget Amazon.com, either (who?). But near as I can tell, all three of those folks are making money. People buy books, which, according to the likes of Peter Chernin, ought to be downright impossible.

Why buy a book? You can go to the library and get it free. Heck, you can sit on a comfy couch in one of those megamonster bookshops and read it free there. You can borrow it from a friend. You can photocopy it on your office machine during lunch hour (or, better yet, when you're supposed to be working). You can shoplift it. You can probably download it from the Internet.

Most of those alternatives have been available for decades - at least ever since cheap photocopying. But folks still buy books - bazillions of them.

If you have been in a bookstore and have not seen anyone buying a book, contact the Transportation Security Administration. They will arrange airstrikes.

WHERE'S DAT?

That brings me to stupid question two. Have you seen a DAT recorder lately in a consumer-electronics shop? I ain't.

I've seen DVD players offered for under $50 (CompUSA had one for free recently). And I've seen plenty of VCRs for under $50. But I ain't seen a DAT recorder outside of a professional supply house.

That makes me wonder. I remember when DAT was supposed to be the replacement for the audiocassette - smaller and better sounding. Sure, the first machines were big, heavy and expensive, but so were the first VCRs. By now, there ought to be $49.99 DAT recorders.

There ain't. And methinks you can give a pile of credit to the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992, which was signed into law by George Bush the First almost exactly ten years ago. Happy Anniversary!

It's big. The "definitions" section, alone, is about a thousand words, and it leaves out a bunch of important stuff.

It introduced the famous Serial Copy Management System, about which I ranted a decade ago. That's the brilliant government edict that prevented Aunt Matilda from making a copy of her copy of your tape of little Jesse's first bank robbery, but it did absolutely zip to stop real piracy.

For instance, professional recorders were exempted. Methinks the idea was that no pirate would ever buy a professional recorder. First-generation copies were exempted on account of no pirate would ever have a bank of recorders copying from a master tape. Personal computers were exempted on account of who'd ever want to record audio on a personal computer (or the CD burner in it)?

So now my pal Peter Chernin wants something like the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 to be applied to DTV. Maybe that's why Fox ain't carrying any HDTV. It's okay to transmit SDTV movies in the clear, with quality about the same as a DVD, on account of who'd want to steal those? But just you transmit an HDTV movie once, and that's it. No one will ever go to a movie theater, buy a DVD, or watch TV ever again (kind of makes you wonder about all those HD movies on ABC).

You think I'm kidding? One big part of the "digital rights management" that folks like Mr. Fox have been harping on so much (whatever harping is) is output-resolution control, the ability to prevent HDTV output (SDTV is okay).

Last month, I let you in on some of the hysterically funny stuff in the draft DTV legislation that was supposedly going to stop video piracy dead in its tracks. Methinks I said something about how folks can aim a camera at a screen and stick a microphone in front of a speaker.

Well, little did I suspect that folks would take my little "suppose" as a call to war. The folks who brought us Divx (seen any Divx disk players recently?) are trying to figure out how to screw up off-screen recordings without making the pix look too horrible for folks just watching the screen legitimately.

ROYALTY SHMOYALTY

Now, then, let me freely admit that there are business models besides the retailing of books that ain't been doing as well in the digital age. Number One would have to be the music business.

It sure ain't what it used to be, and folks getting music without paying for it are part of that. But it was that same music industry that rammed the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 through Congress.

Near as I can figure, the biggest result (part of which was on account of waiting for the act to get passed) was the death of DAT as a consumer medium. And that's too bad. For one thing, it might've made some money for the poor music moguls in their megalimos.

After the big definitions section of the act and the much smaller copy-control section (barely more than 300 words) comes the copyright royalty section.This is my favorite part of that:

"The royalty payment due under section 1003 for each digital audio recording device imported into and distributed in the United States, or manufactured and distributed in the United States, shall be 2 percent of the transfer price."

It should have been the music moguls' favorite part, too. If they'd have dumped the rest and just kept this one, they might not be in the trouble they're in today.

That part of the act says the consumer-electronics manufacturers have to pay a royalty to copyright holders for each consumer DAT machine that comes into the country. To the manufacturers, it's just a cost of doing business. NTSC tuners add a 5 percent cost to imported TV sets and VCRs, so it ain't any big deal to pay 2 percent on a DAT machine.

Import 10 million DAT machines a year at an average hundred bucks a pop, and that'd be $20 million a year in royalty payments. But there ain't any 10 million DAT machines a year. Serial copy management and the wait for it killed that golden-egg-laying goose.

So now the folks who brought you the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 would like to apply it to DTV, with lots of copy control, not just serial. Only it ain't really the exact same folks.

Nope, it's more like the folks who sued Sony for introducing the VCR. But it ain't exactly them, either. That was Disney and Universal.

Hey, guess what! It's the 10th anniversary of the Audio Home Recording Act, but it's also the 25th anniversary of home video sales.

If Disney and Universal had been successful at stopping home video, they'd be a lot worse off today than they are. The home video recordings they thought were going to destroy them actually kept them afloat. Funny thing is, while Disney and Universal were quaking over consumer video recording, Fox signed the first home video contract back in 1977.

Hey, it was a different era. Back then, Fox was called Fox. And maybe there was a reason for that.