MPAA SOCs it to your set-top box

12 May 2010

Over in the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved a request by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to broadcast first-run movies on cable/satellite TV even as they’re still playing in theatres.

The MPAA says it wants to do this because box office is shrinking and it needs to be able to attract consumers who are staying home to watch movies either via DVDs, video-on-demand or – worse – the internet.

The MPAA needed the FCC’s permission to do this because the MPAA will only allow first-run movies on TV if they’re allowed to remotely activate the “Selective Output Control” (SOC) technology in set-top boxes that would allow them to deactivate parts of your home theater system – such as your DVR or Slingbox, for example – depending on what program you’re watching, the DRM rights assigned to it and whether said device has an analog or otherwise insecure output.

SOC itself isn’t new – it’s been around for close to a decade. The MPAA petitioned the FCC to allow them to use SOC in 2003. The FCC said no. The MPAA re-petitioned the FCC in 2008, and this time the FCC said “yes”, citing “public interest benefits – making movies widely available for home viewing far earlier than ever before – without imposing harm on any consumers”.

Evidently the FCC doesn’t consider the ability of movie studios to remotely disable your DVR to be harmful. BoingBoing blogger Cory Doctorow certainly does, and makes a spirited argument against SOC.

To be fair, it’s worth mentioning that the FCC ruling only grants a partial waiver for SOC restrictions – studios can only implement it for 90 days, or until the DVD release date. While Doctorow tends to lay on the worst-case hyperbole with things like this, he’s right on a couple points.

For a start, SOC won’t stop piracy, unless the MPAA is somehow convinced that it won’t occur to anyone to set up a camcorder in front of their HD flatscreen TV (which would actually be an improvement in quality over the pirate DVDs taped on cinema screens). Doctorow implies that the MPAA does in fact know this and only used the first-run films business model as an excuse to get SOC access approved.

That’s probably good news for theatre owners, at least. But it’s also fair grounds for suspicion, especially when considering Doctorow’s second point: the SOC debate isn’t likely to stop at set-top boxes and home theatre systems. We’re now more likely to see SOC implemented in any device capable of playing multimedia, to include laptops, iPods and smartphones.

Granted, such devices don’t come with analog outputs anyway, but that’s not really the point.

The MPAA’s SOC plan not only forces consumers to buy MPAA-approved TV sets and set-top boxes in order to watch content on them, but also establishes the de facto right of content owners to control how people consume multimedia by controlling the appliances and devices themselves. The potential for abuse here is staggering.

Also, given how many Hollywood movies are released overseas (to include Asia, which the MPAA regards as a virtual piracy haven), the MPAA and other local and international content associations may well push for similar SOC capabilities in as many markets as possible. So while this may be a US-only issue now, it won’t be for long.

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