Hollywood Wants to Plug the "Analog Hole"

By | May 24, 2002 at 12:00 AM

The people who tried to take away your VCR are at it again. Hollywood has always dreamed of a “well-mannered marketplace” where the only technologies that you can buy are those that do not disrupt its business. Acting through legislators who dance to Hollywood’s tune, the movie studios are racing to lock away the flexible, general-purpose technology that has given us a century of unparalelled prosperity and innovation.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) filed the “Content Protection Status Report” with the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, laying out its plan to remake the technology world to suit its own ends. The report calls for regulation of analog-to-digital converters (ADCs), generic computing components found in scientific, medical and entertainment devices. Under its proposal, every ADC will be controlled by a “cop-chip” that will shut it down if it is asked to assist in converting copyrighted material – your cellphone would refuse to transmit your voice if you wandered too close to the copyrighted music coming from your stereo.

The report shows that this ADC regulation is part of a larger agenda. The first piece of that agenda, a mandate that would give Hollywood a veto over digital television technology, is weeks away from coming to fruition. Hollywood also proposes a radical redesign of the Internet to assist in controlling the distribution of copyrighted works.

This three-part agenda – controlling digital media devices, controlling analog converters, controlling the Internet – is a frightening peek at Hollywood’s vision of the future.

Hollywood Tips its Hand

The “Content Protection Status Report” points to future where innovation and fair use rights are sacrificed on copyright’s altar, where entertainment companies become de facto regulators of new technologies, deciding which mathematical instructions are mandatory and which are forbidden.

The first part of the document details the efforts of the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG), which will release its final standard for the regulation of digital media technology at the end of May. The BPDG’s standard would ban the production of digital television devices that had not been approved by three Hollywood studios. Approved devices will only interoperate with other approved devices. The combination of legal restrictions on digital television devices and licensing restrictions on the computer technologies they can interface with gives Hollywood an absolute veto over all new digital media technology without the need for unpopular, sweeping legislation like Senator Hollings’s Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA).

Plugging the Analog Hole

But the most disturbing pieces of the Status Report comes later in the document. The second section, “Plugging the Analog Hole,” reveals Hollywood’s plan to turn a generic technology component, the humble analog-to-digital convertor, into a device that is subject to the kind of regulation heretofore reserved for Schedule A narcotics.

Analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) are the building blocks of modern digital technology. An ADC’s job is to take samples of the strength (amplitude) of some analog signal (light, sound, motion, temperature) at some interval (frequency) and convert the results to a numerical value. ADCs are embedded in digital scanners, samplers, thermometers, seismographs, mice and other pointer devices, camcorders, cameras, microscopes, telescopes, modems, radios, televisions, cellular phones, walkie-talkies, light-meters and a multitude of other devices. In general, ADCs are generic and interchangeable – that is, a high-frequency ADC from a sound-card is potentially the same ADC that you’ll find in a sensitive graphics tablet.

Hollywood perceives ADCs as the lynchpin of unauthorized duplication. No matter how much copy-control technology is integrated into DVDs and satellite broadcasts, there is always the possibility that some Internet user will aim a camcorder at the screen, always the shadowy fan at the concert wielding a smuggled digital recorder, always the audiophile jacking a low-impedance cable into a high-end stereo. These bogeymen plague Hollywood, and each one uses an ADC to produce unauthorized copies.

Accordingly, the report calls for a regimen where “watermark detectors would be required in all devices that perform analog to digital conversions.” The plan is to embed a “watermark” (a theoretical, invisible mark that can only be detected by special equipment and that can’t be removed without damaging the media in which it was embedded) in all copyrighted works. Thereafter, every ADC would be accompanied by a “cop chip” that would sense this watermark’s presence and disable certain features depending on the conditions.

This is meant to work like so: You point your camcorder at a movie screen. The magical, theoretical watermark embedded in the film is picked up by the cop-chip, which disables the camcorder’s ADC. Your camcorder records nothing but dead air. The mic, sensing a watermark in the film’s soundtrack, also shuts itself down.

The objective of a law like this is to make “unauthorized” synonymous with “illegal.” In the world of copyright, there are many uses that are legal, even – especially – if they are unauthorized, for example, the fair-use right to quote a work for critical purposes. Any critic – a professor, a reporter, even an individual with a personal website – may be lawfully copy parts of copyrighted works in a critical discussion. Such a person may scan in part of a magazine article, record a snatch of music from a CD or a piece of a film or television show in the lawful course of making a critical work.

And you don’t need to be a critic to make a lawful, unauthorized copy! You might be someone who wants to “format-shift” some personal property – say, by scanning in a book or transferring an old LP to MP3 so that you might take it with you while travelling with your computer. This is absolutely lawful, but under the “analog hole” proposal, providing the tools to make such unauthorized uses would be illegal.

Unintended Consequences

It’s outrageous that Hollywood would demand a law that intentionally breaks technology so that it can’t be used in lawful ways, but the unintended consequences of this regime are even more bizarre.

Virtually everything in our world is copyrighted or trademarked by someone, from the facades of famous sky-scrapers to the background music at your local mall. If ADCs are constrained from performing analog-to-digital conversion of all watermarked copyrighted works, you might end up with a cellphone that switches itself off when you get within range of the copyrighted music on your stereo; a camcorder that refuses to store your child’s first steps because he is taking them within eyeshot of a television playing a copyrighted cartoon; a camera that won’t snap your holiday moments if they take place against the copyrighted backdrop of a chain store such as Starbucks, which forbids on-premises photography because its fixtures are proprietary works.

As was mentioned, ADCs are fundamental, generic computing components, found in medical and scientific equipment, computers, and a variety of consumer electronics. Surely Hollywood doesn’t mean to suggest that geologists will have to equip their seismographs with cop-chips (lest they should accidentally record a copyrighted earthquake)?

It seems likely that they do. The primary difference between most ADCs is the frequency at which they run. Two ADCs of like frequency and bitrate can be interchanged. If any “free” ADCs are allowed into the marketplace, they will surely find themselves repurposed in camcorders, samplers, and scanners (oh my!).

The Scourge of P2P

Hollywood’s report to Congress includes its third legislative goal: “Putting an end to the avalanche of movie theft on so-called ‘file-sharing’ services, such as Morpheus, Gnutella, and other peer-to-peer (p2p) networks.”

Here, rather than making “unauthorized” and “illegal” synonymous, Hollywood is seeking to overturn the Betamax doctrine – the principle that a technology is legal, provided that it can be used to accomplish legal ends. VCRs are legal, even though they can be used to make illegal copies of copyrighted works, because they can also be used to make legal copies of personal works and copyrighted works (in the case of time- and format-shifting).

P2P networks – such as the Internet – are not infringing in and of themselves. “P2P” describes a technology where the system’s control is largely or entirely decentralized. P2P application networks are turned to all manner of ends, from sharing classroom materials and independently produced media to distributing large scientific problems associated with the search for a cure for AIDS to providing a distributed proxy service that allows Chinese Internet users to circumvent China’s national firewall and read uncensored news. True, they can also be used to make unauthorized – and even illegal – copies of copyrighted works, but the Betamax doctrine does not establish as its standard that no illegal uses be possible with a technology; only that a technology have some legal use.

What’s more, thoroughly decentralized networks like Gnutella have no control-point. There is no central server, no standards-body, no exploitable point where leverage can be applied to control what is and is not available on the network. The Internet is fundamentally constructed to permit any two points to communicate, and as long as this is true, Gnutella and its brethren will thrive.

Which begs the question: How will Hollywood put “an end to… movie theft on… p2p networks?” Short of dramatically re-architecting the Internet it seems inconceivable that P2P will ever controlled or eliminated.

But dramatic redesigns of the Internet are well within Hollywood’s stated desires. In 1995, Hollywood’s representatives in government penned “The Report of the Working Group on Intellectual Property Rights,” calling for a neutered Internet whose functionality had been magically constrained to “permit [rights-holders] to enforce the terms and conditions under which their works are made public.”

We can only guess at where these delusional technological speculations have wandered in the intervening years, and this “Content Protection Status Report” is a good and grim indicator.

Take a Stand

Hollywood’s legislative agenda may be ridiculous, but it is hardly unlikely. The BPDG is bare weeks away from turning over a veto on new technologies to Hollywood. They are doing so with the cooperation of the technology companies that are willingly participating in the BPDG process. If just one major computer company would step forward in the press and in Congress and object to the BPDG’s mandate, the entire rubric of a “consensus” upon which the BPDG depends would collapse.

The BPDG mandate is critical to Hollywood’s legislative agenda. With the BPDG mandate in place, an ADC control law and a radical Internet redesign are attainable goals.

If you work for a technology company, please ask your favorite senior manager or corporate officer to contact the EFF. We’d be delighted to deliver a briefing on this and help make the decision to stand up.

As an individual, write to the companies you are a customer of. Take a look at your computer and your consumer electronics: they have been built by companies that are either willingly participating in the BPDG or have not come forward to oppose it. Only once these companies realize that their customers care about liberty will they find the courage to oppose Hollywood’s powerful Congressional representatives, like Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D-Disney).

Show this article to your friends and co-workers. Hollywood’s perverse obsession with plugging the analog hole must be brought to light, as must the likely outcome of its agenda.

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