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Hill urges copyright deal

Tauzin advises content community to be more forthcoming; Boucher suggests 'watermark' bill 3/11/2001 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Lawmakers last week indicated their willingness to get in the middle of stalled negotiations between copyright holders and consumer electronics manufacturers about how free over-the-air broadcasts will be protected in the digital age.

"The message is strong," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) at the Consumer Electronics Association's Digital Download conference in Washington. "Solve this problem if you can. Don't make us solve it for you."

"I'm urging that the content community be a little more forthcoming in these negotiations," said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) during a luncheon speech to the same conference.

Content holders and consumer electronics manufacturers have long been fighting over what level of copy protection certain content should get in the digital world. Consumer electronics manufacturers, which make copying devices such as videocassette recorders, are eager to protect consumers' rights to copy TV programs. Studios, which produce movies and TV programs, are concerned their content will lose market value if it can easily be copied and circulated over the Internet.

Meanwhile, lawmakers worry that the whole debate is slowing the country's transition to digital television because content providers are unwilling to transmit unprotected digital programming, so little high-quality digital content is available to lure viewers to purchase digital TV sets. Without those potential eyeballs, broadcasters face little incentive to speed the conversion.

Two weeks ago, several members of Congress sent a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell expressing their concerns that the stalemate could freeze broadcasters out of top programming. They asked Powell to stay on top of the issue.

"If program producers cannot be assured that programming licensed to broadcast television is protected as securely as programming licensed to cable and other subscription-based channels, these producers will inevitably move their programming over to such channels where protections are clearly stronger," wrote Reps. Tauzin, John Dingell (D-Mich.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) and Sens. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), John Breaux (D-La.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Last week, Boucher suggested there might be a need for a bill that would require VCRs and other copying devices to respond to digital "watermarks" that would include copy-protection instructions transmitted with free over-the-air digital broadcasts. Those instructions would tell VCRs to not copy any pay-per-view or video-on-demand; to make only one copy of premium programming, such as HBO; and to allow liberal copying of free over-the-air television. The difference between the copy regime in the analog and digital worlds, however, is that copy protections on high-end free over-the-air broadcast programming, such as some movies or special events, would be more strict. Today, any consumer can copy any free analog programming without restriction.

CEA praised Boucher's speech, which also suggested a number of modifications to current copyright law to protect fair-use copying of digital content. Studios don't want Congress to get into fair-use issues but would support a watermark bill, said one studio executive.

Lawmakers are likely to address the issue at a hearing before the House Telecommunications Subcommittee March 15. Witnesses are expected to include representatives from the National Association of Broadcasters, National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Motion Picture Association of America and Consumer Electronics Association, as well as a network TV representative.

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