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More on movies going to cable before DVD

Mpaa_petition An astute reader of my earlier post regarding a possible new, earlier window for movies at home pointed out something significant that I'd missed. Rather than being an isolated initiative, the earlier window fits into a continuum of efforts to create a secure, copy-protected pathway into and around the home for high-def programming. Those efforts could eventually give Hollywood inordinate influence over the technologies used in home networks and device-to-device communications.

To recap: the MPAA has asked the Federal Communications Commission to let it use a copy protection technique called "selectable output control" on high-def movies made available through cable and satellite TV operators before the titles were available on DVD. SOC enables studios to turn off the analog and unencrypted digital outputs from cable boxes and satellite receivers to prevent unauthorized copying. The FCC had banned the technique for existing services, such as pay per view, but left the door open to it being used in connection with an innovative new offering.

The MPAA's petition says that titles would be affected only during the period prior to their release on DVD. Once the movie is in Blockbuster, the people who'd been shut out by SOC -- those whose TV sets relied on analog or unencrypted digital inputs -- would have no trouble viewing it. But a pair of footnotes that I'd overlooked in the petition point out that next-generation home-video formats may also include SOC. These include downloadable movies and Blu-ray discs. So if Hollywood restricts high-def releases of movies to the new early-release window, Blu-ray discs and downloadable files, it could make SOC the rule, not the exception -- at least until the films reach HBO and broadcast TV.

That's not to begrudge Hollywood's desire for more protection on high-def titles. The problem here, IMHO, is the potential for the studios to control which protection technologies devices use. Under the FCC's broadcast flag rules (which a federal court struck down in 2005), the commission, not copyright holders, had the power to decide which anti-piracy techniques were acceptable. One example of why this matters: the commission approved the anti-piracy scheme for TiVo's TiVo To Go feature over the objections of the MPAA and the NFL. But with SOC, the FCC has no say over what's an acceptable level of protection. That leaves Hollywood with a great deal of sway over which anti-piracy technologies get deployed. Of course, the studios want their movies to be seen, too. If consumers rally behind home entertainment and networking equipment that's not compatible with the studios' favored  protection techniques,  the studios will have to adapt to that reality. That's one of the reasons the major record companies finally embraced unprotected MP3 files -- they proved to be the best way to reach the largest audience.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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