US judges agree FCC has no rights pursue HDTV broadcast flag regs

Federal judges have cast doubts on a US ruling that devices able to receive high quality television signals must have copy protection technology built in to them.

Two of the three judges of District of Columbia Circuit panel said such decrees by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are outside its remit.

As things stand, from 1 July, an FCC regulation will ban sets able to receive HDTV (high-definition TV) signals if they are unable to read the ‘broadcast flag’ embedded in the signal to prevent unlawful copying of the content.

Much of the pressure for the law came from content owners. Estimates are that distributing television programmes over the Internet via file-sharing networks such as BitTorrent has risen 150 per cent in the past year. Copyright owners fear that while copying for personal use had little impact on their revenues, the Internet has made it possible for anyone in the world with a connection to download programmes from the country where they are first broadcast, without waiting for their local TV networks to get the broadcast rights. And that potentially hurts the massive syndication revenues of shows such as Friends, 24 and the like.

But groups such as the American Library Association and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have argued that such legislation is beyond the remit of the FCC and is the job of Congress. In addition, they say that existing consumer rights, such as the ability to record a program for later viewing, will be eroded.

However, the very broadness of the complaint might be the complainants’ downfall. One of the judges expressed that because the complainants are unable to how the FCC’s actions would cause damages specifically to them – as opposed to the general public – might mean the suit may not go much further.

The EFF has even gone so far as to release a step by step guide on how to build a high-definition digital television (HDTV) recorder unaffected by the technological constraints of the Broadcast Flag, encouraging people to do so before the July deadline.

‘”Even as we’re suing the FCC to stop this interference with technological innovation, we’re also helping television watchers to get off the couch and build their own fully capable PVRs,’ said EFF Special Projects Coordinator Wendy Seltzer, who organized the Build-In. ‘Every MythTV built helps demonstrate the creative development that may be cut off by bad regulation.’

More information is available at the EFF website.

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