Hollywood Loses SOC in Analog Hole

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin nixes an MPAA proposal to use selectable output controls to restrict the ability to use analog output plugs on devices for certain types of content. SOCs have been banned since 2003, but movie studios sought a waiver in order to stream movies before DVD releases.

Hollywood has again failed to convince the Federal Communications Commission to lift its ban on selectable output controls that would allow video distributors to remotely close down analog outputs on digital devices such as DVRs. The FCC imposed the ban in 2003 but in June granted the Motion Picture Association of America a new review on the matter.

"I'm not supportive of moving forward with this MPAA proposal at this time," Martin told reporters Dec. 29.

Plugging the so-called "analog hole" on digital televisions, DVRs and other electronic devices has long been a goal of Hollywood studios that contend analog streaming is not secure enough to thwart piracy. The MPAA had hoped to win a waiver of the FCC ban in order to release movies over cable and satellite prior to their DVD release without fear of copyright infringement.

The MPAA filed the waiver request on behalf of Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Universal City Studios, Walt Disney Studios and Warner Brothers.

"The [studios] are interested in partnering with multichannel programming distributors to provide high-value, high-definition content prior to the normal release date of pre-recorded media (e.g., DVDs) for general in-home viewing," the MPAA wrote in its petition. (PDF) "Such a valuable offering necessarily would require a high[er] level of protection against copyright theft than is currently permissible under the Commission rules."

The MPAA argues the SOC protections are necessary to make the proposed business models for streaming movies a reality.

"Enabling SOC in this instance will provide the [studios] with vital protections by allowing their high-value content to flow only over secure and protected digital outputs," the MPAA contended in its petition.

Consumer and Internet advocacy groups opposed the MPAA petition, arguing that a change in the FCC's rules on SOC would affect other applications that depend on analog connections. The Consumer Electronics Association argued that Hollywood should not be able to disable functions on legally purchased electronic devices.

"Consumers won a big victory ... with Chairman Martin's statement that he would not approve Hollywood's selective output control petition," Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "That petition was yet another attempt by Hollywood to inflict its technological control on consumers, similar to the ill-fated broadcast flag. Consumers, not movie companies, should control their own set-top boxes and not be subject to the whims of Hollywood business plans."

Sohn said she hoped the next chairman of the FCC would also back the SOC ban. Martin is expected to resign in a few weeks to clear the way for a new chairman selected by President-elect Barack Obama. An FCC under Obama would be free to reopen the issue.

Martin said at his Dec. 29 press conference he was interested in technologies that would allow home viewers to watch first-run movies, but his greater concern was the ability of consumers to own portable devices that could move from network to network.

"And I don't want to undermine any progress that we've tried to make on that. I was concerned about that and wasn't ready to move forward with it in light of some of the concerns that were raised by the public interest groups," Martin said.