The 3-minute Guide to the Broadcast Flag

A Brief Overview Explaining What It Is and Why You Should Care

By Cory Doctorow
EFF European Affairs Coordinator

The Broadcast Flag technology mandate says that if you want to invent a better way to watch TV, you need to go to the entertainment companies for permission.

What's wrong with that? Well, for starters, it's the opposite of how we usually do things in America. In America, techology companies invent cool ways of watching TV, and if the entertainment companies don't like it, they have to go convince a judge that there's something illegal, harmful, or both going on. The tech companies thrive under this scheme, not least because it's pretty hard for a movie studio to argue convincingly that, say, the VCR is going to destroy the movie business if there's a VCR in every living room and business is still good.

If the movie studios and the tech companies had to duke it out before new inventions show up on store shelves, they'd have to convince a judge that something unpredictable, like the movie rental business, would evolve to capitalize on the new technology, and do so without any real-world experience. You'd get the studios saying, "Things are good now, and change could harm us," and the techies saying, "Well, sure, maybe the change could harm the studios, but not if they come up with a better business!" That's pretty tricky.

The entertainment companies don't like tools that give you more control. The movie studios boycotted TV because they thought it would clean out the movie theaters. Then they complained that the remote control would make it too easy to skip commercials. Then they freaked out over the VCR, saying it was the "Boston Strangler" of the American film industry and accusing the Japanese (i.e., Sony) of deliberately sabotaging the American economy by targeting the made-in-America film industry with their infernal VCRs. They're not fond of video-capture cards, sued into bankruptcy a personal video recorder company (like TiVo)...and the list goes on and on.

On to the Broadcast Flag. The Broadcast Flag says that if you want to build a device that can receive, pass along, or record a digital TV signal, you'll need to show that it won't disrupt the current entertainment company business. That's a test that the remote control, the VCR, the capture card, and the PVR all would have failed.

What's more, the Broadcast Flag demands that all digital TV devices be built so that people can't modify them. If you've ever come up with a cool way of repurposing some of your own gadgets, you can understand what you'll lose here. It's like a law ordering that every car sold in America have its hood welded shut. Sure, most of us never plan on fixing or modifying our own car, but very few of us would take a hood- welding law lying down. It's not fair for the government to tell us that we're not allowed to peek inside, fix, and improve our own property.

Worst of all, this won't and can't stop people from uploading and downloading all the digital TV they want. There are millions of non- Broadcast Flag devices in the country today, and any one of them can make TV shows into digital files that can be swapped on the Internet. Once one person puts a copy online, anyone can get at it. Even Broadcast Flag-compliant devices have "analog" connectors on the back, which can be plugged into a computer and used to convert shows into digital files.

If you look at what the studios have said to the US Senate for the past three years, you can see that they acknowledge this, and see the Broadcast Flag as only the first step in a three-step plan. The next step is to lock down all devices that can create digital media from the world around us, like scanners, digital cameras, digital audio recorders, tuner cards, etc. (The movie studios call this "plugging the analog hole" -- a ridiculous phrase that would get a laugh out of any middle-schooler.) The final step is to lock down the Internet itself, so that anyone making software would have to get it approved first to make sure it doesn't upset the same movie studios that once thought the remote control would be the death of film industry.

There's no evidence that digital TV is any easier to copy online than regular TV. In fact, since digital TV is very high-resolution, it takes a lot longer to upload or download, so it's not likely that there will be a lot of high-definition programming traded on the Internet no matter what happens with the Broadcast Flag.

In short, the Broadcast Flag is about the movie studios demanding unprecedented veto power over digital technology because they believe they can see into the future and have the right to knee-cap technological innovation, free competition, and consumer rights in order to prop up aging business models. They are wrong.