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The cable television industry is moving ahead with a controversial plan to implement a copy protection scheme that will allow movie studios and cable providers to control what viewers are able to record off future digital cable TV networks.

Makers of televisions, video recorders and interactive set-top boxes who want their equipment to be compatible with the new digital cable systems will be forced to implement the patented Dynamic Feedback Arrangement Scrambling Technique (DFAST), under a 42-page licensing agreement filed with the FCC last week by Cable Television Laboratories, the industry's research and development arm, with support from the National Cable Television Association (NCTA).

DFAST compliant devices would simply refuse to record digital TV broadcasts that are electronically marked "copy never," or to make a single archive copy of a program bearing the more permissive "copy once" mark.

The technology may ultimately result in jarring changes to the average American's viewing habits, and of course require them to invest in new DFAST-compliant hardware if they wish to enjoy the benefits of digital cable.

Under a 1984 Supreme Court decision, viewers are permitted to record television broadcasts for personal use -- a practice now taken for granted by most VCR owners. Critics of the new license say that viewers' "fair use" rights are threatened by DFAST, coupled with an entertainment industry push towards a pay-per-use/pay-per-view universe.

"Consumers should have the same rights now as in the analogue age, to time-shift, or make a single recording to share with their grandmother," says Jeff Joseph, a VP at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), an industry group that represents electronics manufacturers. "I think that in the digital age, content providers would like to prevent consumers from recording programming at all."

The CEA lobbied unsuccessfully against the new license at the FCC. "Hollywood would like to see the play button turn into the pay button", Joseph says.

Adherence to the copy protection scheme is bound up in the CableLabs license, and electronics manufacturers who don't agree to the license will not be able to produce equipment compatible with next-generation digital cable TV systems.

A spokesperson for the National Cable Television Association referred inquiries to Cable Television Laboratories, which did not return phone calls.

Piracy concerns über alles

From a content provider's point of view, the copy protection technology is designed to combat piracy of digital movies and programming. Unprotected digital content can be repeatedly copied without suffering the degradation in quality that successive analogue recordings introduce. Movie studios in particular have expressed grave concern that the Internet might allow rampant piracy of movies that retain perfect, digital quality.

That makes the DFAST licensing solution eerily similar in its means and goals to the Content Scrambling System (CSS) the motion picture industry implemented to control DVD movies.

Last year, sixteen-year-old Norwegian programmer Jon Johansen cracked the DVD protection, called CSS, and wrote a program called DeCSS that lets anyone bypass the scrambling. In August, a federal judge ruled that DeCSS was created in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and ordered Eric Corley, editor of 2600, the Hacker Quarterly, to remove the program from his publication's Web site.

© 2000 SecurityFocus.com. All rights reserved.

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