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FCC accepts MPAA's 'Selectable Output Control'

The Federal Communications Commission gave Hollywood a little present late Friday afternoon: qualified approval for a scheme that would let movie studios remotely disable the analog outputs on cable and satellite tuners while you watch video-on-demand copies of some movies.

This idea goes by the relatively accurate name of "Selectable Output Control" -- as in, the studio can select what outputs work. (That kind of restriction should be familiar if you've rented a movie from a site like Apple's iTunes Store that requires your computer to have a "protected" digital video output.) The theory is that if studios can rest assured that a viewer isn't using an analog connection to save an unrestricted copy for Internet sharing, they'll offer high-definition titles for home viewing before shipping them on DVD or Blu-ray discs.

The downsides of it are less hypothetical: If you bought your HDTV too early, it won't include the HDMI audio/video inputs that "SOC" would require. Or it might have not have enough HDMI inputs, requiring you to unplug one video source to watch another.

Cable and satellite operators, in turn, may find themselves dealing with tech-support requests from viewers who have no idea what an HDMI input is.

The film industry and its Washington lobby, the Motion Picture Association of America, have sought this for years, but under the prior administration the FCC had rejected the idea. This time around, the commission's Media Bureau reconsidered and granted a waiver of its earlier rejection.

In an 11-page ruling (PDF) posted at Washington's traditional time for burying bad news, Media Bureau chief William T. Lake wrote that the FCC would give Hollywood's idea a chance but would impose extra limits. The three big changes:

* Instead of letting studios impose SOC for an unlimited term, the commission will only allow it for 90 days or until a movie's release on DVD or Blu-ray, whichever comes first.

* Studios won't be allowed to anoint a proprietary "digital rights management"-compliant connection; in practice, they'll have to support HDMI.

* The FCC will review this waiver in two years, based on data reported by studios about the commercial success of SOC releases and whether SOC stopped unauthorized redistribution.

Like a lot of people outside the entertainment industry -- see, for example, Techdirt, Ars Technica and Public Knowledge -- I'm not a fan of the FCC's move.

First, I don't buy the argument that movie studios will never offer pre-DVD releases over video-on-demand without the crutch of SOC. They already have, as Public Knowledge's Michael Weinberg pointed out in November.

Second, does Hollywood need to make its Byzantine "release window" business model more complicated? Schemes like SOC just delay the inevitable recognition by studios that if somebody wants to pay them to watch a movie, they should smile and take their money instead of telling them to wait their turn.

Third, we're bound to see other industries try to use SOC for unrelated goals. That's exactly what happened when the FCC imposed a foolish, since-repealed "broadcast flag" DRM requirement on HDTV manufacturers; before long, the NFL wanted to use this copy-control technology to stop people from watching a blacked-out game in the wrong market.

Fourth, I don't think SOC will work at stopping movies from showing up online. In applauding the FCC's action (PDF), the MPAA depicts SOC as stopping unauthorized redistribution because "it essentially disables non-secure, analog outputs."

But in seeking a waiver, the MPAA told the FCC a slightly more complicated story. Turn to page 5 of the FCC ruling:

As MPAA explains, illegal copying happens in waves as higher-quality versions of a film are made available. The first wave occurs when a poor-quality camcorder version becomes available, the second wave when a higher-quality DVD version becomes available, and the third wave when the highest-quality Blu-Ray version is made available.

But wait, isn't Blu-ray supposed to have "some of the strongest copy protection methods ever developed for any consumer format"? Unless SOC is the first mass-market DRM system to never get cracked, you'll see it compromised soon enough. And since you only need to unlock a DRMed file once to copy it infinitely, that will leave the studios no better off than they are today -- which, come to think of it, isn't so bad.

Ultimately, this proposal's success isn't up to the MPAA or the FCC. It's up to you, the home viewer. Do you know, without looking at your TV, if it can support SOC? If it does, and if your TV provider offers a VOD rental under SOC restrictions, would you take it up on the deal?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 10, 2010; 11:52 AM ET
Categories:  TV , Video  
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My TV should be OK, but I know my cable box won't support SOC, because Comcast disabled HDMI output on it.

Posted by: JoshCVT | May 10, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

If all that is required is a HDMI connection, then both of my HD TVs would be able to view SOC content. I would welcome the opportunity to see 1st run movies at home with the understanding that I couldn't record them, as long as the technology didn't get in the way of the viewing experience.

Posted by: dcborn61 | May 10, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Is this going to affect me? No.

My TV has a single HDMI port, but since my DishNetwork receiver has no HDMI outputs, it won't help. On the other hand, I haven't ever ordered a Pay-Per-View movie, and I don't expect to order Video-on-Demand anything. I don't even have 'premium' channels (eg HBO, Showtime, et al).

Is this a good idea? Hell No!!!

The MPAA studios aren't losing any money to amateur copiers (ie: one-off copiers who copy for personal use), and there's no way that SOC is going to deter the commercial copiers, since they typically get their copies directly from internal sources, avoiding all of the analog 'copy machine effects'.

Posted by: washpost86 | May 10, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

I don't know if my TV supports SOC, but I don't have any service that would provide VOD anyway. Just Roku and over-the-air. I don't fool with cable or satellite. Jerking us around with these goofy rights-management things gives me another reason to pass.

Someone will hack this too.

Posted by: ObamasGulfResponseIsMuchWorseThanKatrina | May 10, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

"The first wave occurs when a poor-quality camcorder version becomes available,"

Seems like that wave would get a heck of a lot larger with early-release movies on your TV. And as you've said, you only have to crack it once.

Why don't the theaters get upset about their diminishing exclusivity?

Posted by: WorstSeat | May 11, 2010 8:06 AM | Report abuse

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