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FCC Supports Watching Movies at Home (to the Dismay of Theater Owners)

While the FCC has traditionally steered clear of copyright issues, that has grown more difficult as the preferred method of content protection shifts from court actions to copyright protection built into the hardware. The FCC therefore found itself in the middle when Hollywood insisted that cable and satellite set-top boxes be designed so that programming could be embedded with code preventing the box from outputting the programming through any output unsecured against copying (principally analog outputs). Consumers and consumer electronics manufacturers fought back, noting that early generation DTV sets only had analog inputs, and that allowing programming to be restricted to the digital outputs of set-top boxes would deprive those early adopters of programming unless they bought new DTV sets.

In balancing the desire of Hollywood for an ironclad grip over its programming, and the adverse impact upon consumers just as the FCC was trying to persuade them to transition to digital television, the FCC prohibited the use of Selectable Output Control (SOC), but did not prohibit set-top boxes from being manufactured with SOC capability. The idea was that the FCC might later be presented with a business model requiring the use of SOC, and the FCC did not rule out the possibility of granting a waiver if the applicant could demonstrate that consumers would not be harmed by the use of SOC.

The FCC today released a decision partially granting a waiver request from the MPAA that would allow cable and satellite companies, at the request of the program provider, to use SOC to prevent set-top boxes from outputting recent theatrical HD movies over “unsecured” outputs. The business model proposed in the waiver request is the release of movies through Video on Demand services while those movies are potentially still in theaters, and long before they become available on DVD or Blu-Ray disc. The MPAA persuaded the FCC that studios would never release their content to home viewing this early in a film’s marketing life unless assured that it wouldn’t result in the content immediately being pirated over the analog outputs of set-top boxes.

In addition to the traditional opposition from consumer electronics manufacturers, who will face the wrath of consumers unable to get their components to work with the restricted outputs, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) also objected. They argued that such an early release model would undercut their business, and that “instant availability of films will reduce choice and limit the ability to develop ‘sleeper’ hits in movie theaters.” Similarly, the Independent Film and Television Association (IFTA) asserted that SOC would reduce access to independently produced films.

The FCC chose, however, to grant a waiver, stating its belief that “home viewing will complement the services that NATO and IFTA members offer and provide access to motion pictures to those consumers who cannot or do not want to visit movie theaters.” While the FCC has long claimed not to be in the business of picking winners and losers in its technology decisions, that loud groan you hear is theater owners concerned that they are about to be “complemented” out of business by an ever-improving (and now speedier) home viewing experience.

In an effort to prevent SOC from being abused, however, the FCC did not grant the open-ended waiver sought by the MPAA. For example, the FCC limited the time during which SOC restrictions can be applied to 90 days, or whenever the movie becomes available on prerecorded media, whichever comes first. It also prohibited SOC from being used to promote proprietary connections (by blocking output to acknowledged copyright-secure connections on retail devices in favor of a Hollywood-preferred connection). The FCC also made clear that if “companies taking advantage of this waiver market their offering in a deceptive or unpredictable manner that does not allow consumers to ‘truly understand when, how, and why SOC is employed in a particular case’,” the FCC “will not hesitate to revoke this waiver.”

Finally, to prevent MPAA members from gaining an unfair advantage over other movie producers, the FCC is making the waiver available to any provider of first-run theatrical content that files an “Election to Participate” with the FCC. Such providers will be required to submit a detailed report to the FCC on their use of SOC two years from commencing use of SOC under the waiver so that the FCC can later assess whether the waiver needs to be modified or terminated. Whether the FCC will actually revisit the decision remains to be seen, but keeping its options open is likely a wise idea, as this is a decision that could well have cascading unintended consequences for all involved.