The Broadcast Flag and "Plug & Play": The FCC's Lockdown of Digital Television


The DTV Liberation Front is here:

Go to to learn more about the broadcast flag, get information on HDTV tuner cards, and get instructions on how to make your own PVR.

The United States is in the midst of a transition from analog to digital television (DTV) broadcasting. By switching from analog to digital broadcast technologies, Congress hopes to repossess a bunch of spectrum from TV broadcasters, which will then be auctioned off for other uses. Voila -- more money without raising taxes; Congress loves this idea!

But Hollywood pulled a hold-up. It threatened to derail the DTV transition by withholding "high-value content" from over-the-air DTV, unless the FCC imposed "content protection" (a.k.a. DRM) on all future televisions, TiVos, and computers designed to interoperate with DTV content. The idea was that content owners would implant a "broadcast flag" into DTV programming. When devices detect the flag, they have to "protect" (i.e., lock up in DRM jail) the programming.

Fortunately, EFF helped thwart Hollywood's attempt to take over your TiVo. Originally, an FCC ruling [PDF 448k] made it illegal as of July 2005 to manufacture or import DTV tuners unless they included DRM technologies mandated by the FCC. EFF and a coalition of libraries and public interest groups then sued to overturn the ruling. In a unanimous decision, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals concluded, as we had argued, that the FCC lacked authority to regulate what happens inside your TV or computer once it has received a broadcast signal.

The fight isn't over yet, though. The flag's proponents at the MPAA will be headed to Congress to get authority for the rule, and we'll be looking for your help fighting that as well.

Over-the-air, broadcast DTV isn't the only front. When it comes to digital cable and satellite TV, Hollywood bypassed the FCC and directly strong-armed the cable and satellite broadcasters to impose DRM on all future TV devices. In the "Plug & Play" proceeding, the FCC approved [PDF, 2.1M] this (though it did impose some limits on how bad DRM can get).

EFF has been in the Broadcast Flag and Plug & Play fights from the beginning. This archive documents the fight. We'll keep fighting similar efforts by Hollywood to stifle innovation and treat everyone like a pirate.

» Broadcast Flag
» Plug & Play
» Digital Radio Flag