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Broadcast flag

From Academic Kids

A broadcast flag is a set of status bits (or "flags") sent in the data stream of a digital television program that indicates whether or not it can be recorded, or if there are any restrictions on recorded content. Possible restrictions include inability to save a digital program to a hard disk or other non-volatile storage, inability to make secondary copies of recorded content (in order to share or archive), forceful reduction of quality when recording (such as reducing high-definition video to the resolution of standard TVs), and inability to skip over commercials. In the United States, new television receivers using the ATSC standard were supposed to incorporate this functionality by July 1, 2005, but a federal court struck down the Federal Communications Commission's rule to this effect on May 6. The stated intention of the broadcast flag is to prevent copyright infringement, but many have asserted that broadcast flags interfere with fair use rights of the viewing public.

The FCC rule

The FCC's rule is in 47 CFR 73.9002(b) and the following sections, stating in part: "No party shall sell or distribute in interstate commerce a Covered Demodulator Product that does not comply with the Demodulator Compliance Requirements and Demodulator Robustness Requirements". According to the rule, hardware must "actively thwart" piracy.

The rule's Demodulator Compliance Requirements insist that all HDTV demodulators must listen for the flag (or assume it to be present in all signals). Flagged content must be output only to "protected outputs" such as HDMI ports, or in degraded form through analog outputs or digital outputs with visual resolution of 720x480 pixels (EDTV) or less. Flagged content may be recorded only by "Authorized" methods, which may include tethering of recordings to a single device.

Since broadcast flags could be activated at any time, a viewer who often records a program might suddenly find that it is no longer possible to save a favorite show. This and other reasons lead many to see the flags as a direct affront to consumer rights.

Particularly troubling to open source developers are the Demodulator Robustness Requirements. Devices must be "robust" against user access or modifications so that someone could not easily alter it to ignore the broadcast flags that permit access to the full digital stream. Since open-source device drivers are by design user-modifiable, a PC TV tuner card with open-source drivers would not be "robust". It is unclear whether binary-only drivers would qualify. Projects could also be affected at the application level. It would likely be illegal for the open-source MythTV project, which creates personal video recorder (PVR) software, to interface with digital television demodulators.

Some devices currently being manufactured, such as the pcHDTV devices intended for the Linux market, would likely be forced to halt production. This portion of the rule also effectively prevents individuals from building their own high-definition television sets and receiving devices. (It may seem far-fetched to a layman, but there have been many instances in the past where engineers have built their own analog TVs, and it follows that some people would wish to continue such pursuits in the digital age. The technologies used will most likely be centered around software-defined radio, fast ADCs and FPGA chips - tools with so generic use their availability can not be effectively restricted.)

The GNU Radio project already successfully demonstrated that purely software-based demodulators can exist and the hardware rule is not fully enforceable.

Current status

The United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the FCC had exceeded its authority in creating this rule. The court stated that the commission could not prohibit the manufacture of computer and video hardware without copy protection technology because the FCC only has authority to regulate communications, not devices that receive communications. It is possible that a higher court may overturn this ruling, or the United States Congress may grant such authority to the FCC. Some of the major U.S. television networks have stated in the past that they will stop broadcasting high-definition content if the rule does not go into effect.

If the rule were to be reinstated, it is possible that non-compliant decoders will be manufactured for market in other locales, since Japan and the United States are the only countries to have such regulations. Some of these devices could potentially find their way into "broadcast flag" countries like the United States.

As of Jun 21 2005, there are rumors Hollywood is attempting to sneak the Broadcast Flag back as a rider on the Senate Appropriation bill. [1] (http://www.boingboing.net/2005/06/20/urgent_call_your_sen.html)

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