Broadcast Flag

Study Guide

The broadcast flag is a highly controversial topic that is being debated currently in Congress. In essence, the broadcast flag is a set of bits in a data stream of digital content such as a television program that prevents certain activities, i.e. recording. Obviously there are several issues here mainly involving fair use, and rights to digital media. With the growth in Digital TV and the mandate that analog TV will be dead in February 17, 2009 brings the issues even moreso into the forefront.

Fair Use

One of the primary ethical issues in debate here is the interpretation of fair use. The FCC claims as well as organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is that by allowing users the freedom to record shows and keep them hurts the business of the content producers. Opponents of this technology argue that it prevents "fair use" of the content and violates the users right to content for which they have already paid. Contrarily to this view is the concern of producers of piracy of their content. Safeguards are necessary to prevent stealing of material, and their feeling is that although these measures are inconveniences, they help to preserve a stable market, and overal keep prices down for consumers.

Rights to Digital Media

Additionally, the main ethical debate is over who 'owns' the content being provided. In a digital media format, does the content provider hold the rights to all copies of the content, or does the user pay for each individual copy. Moreover, if the user owns a copy, what rights does that owner have to make more copies for personal use. The Napster revolution continues to spark this debate even further with the RIAA recently stating that even ripping CDs to an iPod is a violation of fair use. Which again sparks the question: if you own two copies of identical data, why is one only allowed on one device and another allowed on a different device, but they cannot swap devices? Contrarily the producers ask the question, if we made the original copy, do we not own the rights to state how all copies of our content can be used when it is distributed?

Recent Developments

Originally the law enforcing the use of broadcast flags was introduced by the FCC as a rule. However, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in May 2005, in the case of American Library Association v. FCC, that the FCC exceeded its authority in this rule. Therefore the battle has now moved to Congress. With many bills trying to make their way in either directly or indirectly. There has been plenty of public opposition to this bill, yet the debate continues to rage on. It seems that a ruling favoring either way will have major implications not only in the future of Digital Broadcasting but also on the concept of Digital Media ownership.

How will it affect me?

Consumers are directly affected by the broadcast flag, especially with the push for Digital Television. More and more people are using Digital Video Recorder (DVR) devices such as TiVo to record shows and bypass commercials. Use of anti-recording technology and laws mandating they be enforced in all devices could cause technologies such as these to no longer be usable. However, the fact remains that piracy is a big issue with digital media so some protection is necessary. If piracy runs rampant then the producers will lose money, and the quality of media will go down. However, if protection schemes become too intrusive and abusive the consumer will look to alternatives and the market will sag. Obviously a balance needs to be met, it is just yet to be seen where it is just yet.