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January 3, 2006

Legislation Introduced to Close the Analog Hole

It's 2006 and the copy protection wars continue unabated.  Sony's disastrous foray with CD audio protection served as a win, to some extent, for consumers because Sony approached protecting their property with a hacker's mentality.  The problem was not in protecting content as much as the side effects of creating a haven on consumer machines for viruses and spyware.  To top it off, Sony's DRM added insult to injury by installing itself even when consumers did not agree to the "license," and by reporting consumer listening habits back to corporate.  That scenario was so bad that even states such as Texas and New York, among others, presented legal action against the company.

This is all falling in the back drop as Sony settles class action suits by eliminating this form of copy protection on discs through voluntary action.  Some analysts believe that the lack of DRM measures implemented in hardware will draw calls for legislation mandating that manufacturers place a system in computers and other devices to stop rampant copying, fair use concepts be darned (or worse).

Now that broadcast television is going digital cold turkey in 2009, there is a concern on Capitol Hill that copying television shows to digital equipment will undermine the entertainment industry business model.  The issue of a no-copy broadcast flag made news when a D.C. Court of Appeals struck down the FCC's rules because the court said Congress did not give the Commission power to require a flag.  Congress responded with legislation that would authorize the FCC to create those rules.  That might take care of the purely digital world, but it leaves open the "analog hole."

There are any number of devices on the market that digitize video from any number of sources, including those that play copy protected content.  Take one digitizer, connect it to a computer on one end, or a cable box or VCR on the other end via analog outputs and inputs, and one has a reasonable if not perfect copy of video content.  This works with CD audio by the way as the digitizer is built into the machine in the form of the sound card, at least until aforementioned legislation is passed to limit this capability.

Most video digitizers on the market today actually have systems built in that recognize market leading DRM systems such as Macro-Vision, which is used to prevent analog copying of protected content.  Try copying your old VHS copies of the original Star Wars on even the least expensive PVR sold at Wal-Mart and you'll discover these systems honor DRM protection.

Nonetheless, Congress, or at least several members thereof are concerned that where there is a will, there is a way.  HR 4569 (Digital Transition Content Security Act of 2005) introduced by Reps. Sensenbrenner (R-WI)and Conyers (D-MI) , would tighten that way by requiring all digitizers sold within one year of the bill's passage to include two DRM systems that would detect and respect a signal embedded in content that would prevent analog copying.

The immediate criticism of the bill is that it would lock in a DRM technology that may either get old or get hacked.  Another disturbing prospect is that the technology may be may be ignored by pirates altogether by breaking the digital stream instead.  If that happens, Congress may have to pass another bill.

There is a great article on this at Ars Technica.

January 3, 2006 | Permalink

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