[opendtv] NBC, Microsoft Raise The 'Broadcast Flag'

  • From: "Manfredi, Albert E" <albert.e.manfredi@xxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <opendtv@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 8 Jul 2008 12:38:08 -0400

More information on this Vista broadcast flag flap.

It's time that 17 USC 1201(k)(2) be updated to either include digital
copy protection techniques in its limitations, or remove the references
to specific analog techniques. That way, rather than railing so much
against Microsoft, the illegality of what was done can be placed where
it belongs.

And btw, a few years ago, NBC also told me that its "copy never" CGMS
setting had been unintended, even though it was not asserted in all of
its shows at the time. And also coincidence(?), the show was "Medium"
then too.

Bert

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http://www.tvtechnology.com/pages/s.0080/t.14189.html

NBC, Microsoft Raise The 'Broadcast Flag'

by Frank Beacham, 6.25.2008

Frank Beacham is a New York City-based writer and producer. Visit his
Web site at www.frankbeacham.com.

NBC used the broadcast flag to prohibit recording shows like "American
Gladiators."

In a remarkable case of viewer "gotcha," NBC and Microsoft were recently
caught red-handed playing footloose with the broadcast flag. The whole
episode demonstrated clearly why major media companies should never be
trusted and must always be regulated, especially when using digital
technology.

In case you need a reminder, the broadcast flag itself is a set of
status bits that broadcasters can insert into the datastream of TV shows
that place restrictions on the recording of the shows.

Those restrictions include the inability to save an unencrypted digital
program to a hard disk or other nonvolatile storage, inability to make
secondary copies of recorded content (in order to share or archive),
forceful reduction of quality when recording (such as reducing HD video
to the resolution of standard TVs), and inability to skip over
commercials.

OBEY THE FLAG

A broader use of the term "flag" goes back to proposals made by the FCC
earlier this decade. The commission wanted companies that made software
and hardware equipment for television to honor the flag. However, the
courts ruled against the FCC's plan in 2005, saying the regulator
couldn't force electronics makers to interpret TV signals a certain way.

Since then, those software and hardware companies have had the option of
deciding whether to design their systems to obey the broadcaster's
flags. Since the issue fell from the headlines after the 2005 court
ruling, most thought it dead and forgotten.

Not NBC and Microsoft. NBC used the flag to prohibit recording of shows
such as "American Gladiators" and "Medium." Microsoft honored it-without
telling buyers-in its Windows Media Center recording system.

Microsoft has a lot of users, by the way. More than 140 million copies
of the Vista operating system have been sold, Microsoft said last month.
Both Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate contain Media Center,
although a tuner is needed to record from a television set.

Both companies were caught when a viewer, Justin Sanders, tried to make
a recording on his Window's Vista machine from Raleigh's HDTV channel,
WNCN-DT1. A popup came on, claiming that "restrictions set by the
broadcaster...prohibit recording of this program." Sanders released the
image of the popup on the Internet. Others also reported the same
situation.

BUSTED

NBC hemmed and hawed at first, finally saying it was an "inadvertent
mistake" that the broadcast flag had been employed. Sure it was! But, it
was Microsoft's explanation that takes the cake.

Arguing that it was following "FCC rules," Microsoft acknowledged that
its Windows Media Center system will block users from recording
television broadcasts with a flag. "Microsoft included technologies in
Windows based on rules set forth by the FCC," a Microsoft spokeswoman
told CNET News.com. "As part of these regulations, Windows Media Center
fully adheres to the flags used by broadcasters and content owners to
determine how their content is distributed and consumed."

What's wrong with this picture? First of all, Microsoft's PR flack
didn't even know that there is no FCC rule preventing use of the flag.
Apparently, the court ruling was out of sight, out of mind. A remarkable
faux pas in itself!

But somebody at Microsoft obviously knew the software was honoring the
wishes of content creators and owners. It had to be designed into
Windows Media Center and activated.

Was the software company so supplicate to the wishes of program creators
that it went ahead and implemented the flag protection anyway, without
telling its own customers? It certainly looks that way. It's only
amazing that it took so long for end users to discover what Microsoft
was up to.

FAIR USE RIGHTS

So far, it is not clear if Microsoft is the only video recording vendor
to secretly deploy the flag. "I'm not aware of any effort by the
industry to prevent people from recording their shows," Jim Denney,
TiVo's vice president of product marketing, told CNET.

No, this act is not illegal-software makers can implement any "features"
they please in their software. But it is unethical.

The problem is that American television viewers have fair use rights to
record television content over the air. That was granted us by the U.S.
Supreme Court in the infamous Betamax case. It is the media companies
who have long lobbied against those rights, constantly attempting to
take them away in the digital era.

NBC and Microsoft have been among the strongest advocates to protect the
rights of copyright owners. NBC broke with Apple's iTunes, at least
partially over Apple's supposedly weak copy protection. Led by Jeff
Zucker, NBC Universal's president, the company has been on a copyright
tear lately. That's why few believe the "inadvertent mistake" story.

FESS UP

Microsoft has repeatedly showed it is more a friend of the content
provider than the consumer. Unless it was a horrible accident, this
mistake is proof. To not even tell users of this limitation in its
software is unforgivable. It is past time for Microsoft to come clean.

"The important thing to remember," Danny O'Brien, a staffer at the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, told CNET, "is that digital-TV viewers
must not lose any of the rights they owned as analog users.

"Microsoft has put the requirements of broadcasters above what consumers
want," O'Brien said. "They've imposed restrictions way beyond what the
law requires. Customers need to know who Microsoft is listening to and
how that affects their equipment. Right now, the only way customers know
what Microsoft has agreed to is when the technology they've bought
suddenly stops working. Microsoft needs to come clean and tell its
customers what deals it has made."

This whole sorry episode underlines why American citizens need
protectors of their lawful interests in the digital era. The FCC has
failed miserably. All we have are some excellent consumer advocates and
individuals who use the Internet to expose the corporate misfits.

It's a dog-eat-dog digital world. Chalk up one win for the little guy.
 
 
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