WASHINGTON A draft copy-protection bill backed by Hollywood heavyweights is triggering an outcry from PC and consumer electronics companies who say the legislation would force them to relinquish control of key system design technologies.
Written by Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, the proposed Security Systems Standards and Certification Act calls for interactive digital devices to include security technologies certified by the U.S. secretary of commerce. If approved, the law would be enforceable under federal regulations and could dramatically alter the way system OEMs design and develop PCs, TVs, set-tops or other digital appliances with embedded microprocessors, according to industry sources familiar with the Hollings proposal.
The motion-picture industry, with the Disney and Fox studios in the lead, backs the legislation.
"This is the best way to protect America's valuable creative works, which in turn will expand broadband access and Internet use," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
But the PC and consumer electronics OEMs are lining up in opposition to the legislation, which is expected to be the subject of a hearing in late October before a Senate committee chaired by Hollings. "The regulatory system is not constructed to deal with digital product design. It only adds an extra layer of complication," said Washington telecommunications attorney James Burger, who works closely with the U.S. computer industry.
The bill's broad definition of applicable devices and its blank-check approach to federal development of the standard are said to be two major concerns.
"This is a big bill, backed by big companies with big properties. This could change forever the way you and I watch TV over the next 25 to 50 years," warned a consumer electronics executive who asked not to be identified.
Vendors fear the bill could hobble system OEMs and consumers by tightly circumscribing the way airwave broadcasts are enabled, watched, recorded and played back. "We are not in the business of making a video recorder to give Disney the authority to turn it on or off," said another consumer electronics executive based in Washington.
Hollings' Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee postponed a hearing on the security legislation until later in October.
The legislation reportedly stems from the studios' frustration with the lack of consensus thus far among content owners, PC makers and consumer electronics vendors on copy protection. Talks have dragged on for several years, and some movie studios blame the slow digital TV rollout on the absence of such an agreement a problem they now believe Congress should rectify.
Some security technology experts questioned the soundness of the copy protection concept itself. "Copy protection doesn't work, period," said Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer for Counterpane Internet Security Inc. (San Jose, Calif.) and author of Secrets and Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World. "The only hope the media companies have is to push the protection into the hardware. This works marginally better. Hence, the new bill."
Schneier also conjured the specter of control, saying he believes "the entertainment industry is trying to turn your computer into an Internet entertainment console, where they, not you, have control over your hardware and software."
The bill's draft language would make it "unlawful to manufacture, import, offer to the public, provide or otherwise traffic in any interactive digital device that does not include and utilize certified security technologies that adhere to the security system standards." It does not specify the types of technologies, or how and where they should be applied. But it does list the criteria to which the technologies should adhere, including "reliability, renewability, resistance to attack, ease of implementation, modularity and applicability to multiple technology platforms."
The bill would give the private sector 12 months to agree on a standard or empower the commerce secretary to step in. If the industry forges an agreement within the deadline, the Commerce Department would turn it into a regulation. If not, the National Institute of Standards and Technology would determine security system standards.
The proposed legislation defines "security system technologies" broadly enough to include almost any security measures, from bit-level and wired-level protection to platform- and environment-level security, according to industry sources.
There is evidence, however, that several Hollywood studios are already considering the insertion of watermarks carrying certain copy control information in content released for digital broadcast over the airwaves. Current digital consumer electronics systems are not under obligation to conform to specific conditional-access approaches, since they are designed to receive free TV broadcasts. But industry sources said the studios want makers of such systems to install mechanisms to recognize these proposed studio watermarks.
In July, Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures Entertainment agreed to use the Digital Transmission Content Protection (DTCP) spec from the Digital Transmission Licensing Administrator (DTLA). But MPAA members Disney, Fox, Universal, MGM and Paramount complained that the DTCP spec lacked rigor. They sent a proposal to the DTLA asking that a watermark/copy control information recognition mechanism be added, said DTLA president Michael Ayers.
One official familiar with the DTLA activities asserted that, "at a time when we are still sorting out such issues, it is highly inappropriate for the movie studios to take an action to let the Congress steamroll it."
Even if a watermark scheme is introduced, DTLA sources questioned whether the DTCP spec is the right place to implement it. "The DTLA and its member companies are certainly interested in pursuing Congress' goal on interindustry solutions," Ayers said. But he questioned the wisdom of asking technology companies to stretch their already-limited resources for copy protection development all the way to Washington.