If you had the chance to watch a movie on cable or satellite TV before it came out on DVD, what sort of trade-offs would you be willing to make? Would you pay more to watch it than a DVD rental or even a movie ticket? Would you accept having to watch the movie in one sitting, with no breaks for phone calls or snacks? Would you lose interest if you couldn't record the movie to watch again later?
These are the sorts of questions the market typically answers, but that's not how it necessarily works in the entertainment industry. This week, seven consumer advocacy groups urged the FCC not to let the studios conduct the experiment they proposed in early video-on-demand releases. The reason: the MPAA wants to deploy an anti-piracy technique that, in the advocacy groups' opinion, would give the studios too much control over the technology used in homes.
That technique, called "selectable output control," would prevent cable and satellite boxes from transmitting movies through analog or unprotected digital outputs. Only secure digital connections -- in particular, HDMI with HDCP -- could transmit the video. That would cut digital recorders out of the signal path (unless they were built into the cable or satellite receiver), as well as blocking more than 11 million early model HDTVs with only analog or unprotected digital inputs. It spells trouble for home entertainment networks, which aren't widespread now but eventually will be. And conceivably, the technique could be used to shut off HDMI connections, too, if the studios found something better down the road. As the advocacy groups' brief put it:
In the future, this ability could be used to turn off all existing connections for the proposed “Services,” and only allow those services to flow through a proprietary connection sanctioned by MPAA. It is not hard to imagine that manufacturers would have to support this connection, or that in order to license this connection, consumer electronics companies would have to agree to terms dictated by Petitioner. These terms might include any manner of restriction, including those which the Commission and Congress have chosen not to grant them.
Personally, I'd like the studios to be able to test the market for earlier home-video releases. A compelling offer might benefit families that find the multiplex too expensive or inconvenient, while also helping studios compete with piracy. And although the advocacy groups have an understandable concern about people with "legacy devices" being cut off from the new service, the shift to digital in consumer electronics guarantees that people will have the same regrets about living-room gear as they do about computers, cameras and other technology that's outdated almost as soon as it's unboxed. It's unrealistic to think that the historic stability of the TV platform will endure in the digital TV era.
The groups raise a good point about Hollywood's ability to use selectable output control to stop consumers from doing legal things with the content they pay for. The technique poses an obvious problem for people used to pausing and delaying programs with their TiVos. It also would probably prevent Slingbox users from watching the movies remotely through the Internet. Such restrictions, however, have some precedent. Video on demand services have already started to limit TiVo's recording functions. And some wireless phone users have run into problems watching Slingbox feeds.
At its heart, the battle is over whether the consumers choose to create secure digital networks in their homes for the sake of valuable new services, or whether the MPAA can compel them to do so (to specifications drawn up by the studios). I'd like the market to decide how much flexibility and control consumers trade off in exchange for access to content, but I'd also like the market to decide which technologies win. That's a delicate balance for the FCC to strike. Yet having the commission set terms for selectable output control -- and in particular, which anti-copying technologies are deemed sufficient -- is much less alarming than letting Hollywood dictate those choices.
The evocative image of an HDMI cable is courtesy of www.hdmi.org.