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Sky Plus cans and can'ts

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There is confusion today after British Sky Broadcasting first confirmed, and then denied that the company's digital recorders have built-in support for recording restrictions.

Launched last September, the key features of the Sky+ system are its twin decoders and disk-based digital recorder. Viewers pay £300 for the actual equipment and then £10 per month for access to the recording features. One satellite channel can be recorded while watching another, and it is even possible to pause live television.

There have been rumours that the system includes a hidden feature that, in future, will allow broadcasters to block recording of their programmes.

One Sky+ error message, not currently used but included in the system software, simply states: "You cannot record this programme."

Last week a Sky spokeswoman seemed to deny that the recording restrictions exist. But when asked specifically if an individual broadcaster can block recording of programmes on the Sky+ system, she said that this is possible.

Sky's Manager of New Products, Sales and Marketing, James Soames, later confirmed that recording controls are included in the system software. But he emphasised Sky's opposition to broadcasters ever making use of the hidden feature.

"We would fight hard against that," he said. "We have no plans to restrict recording and we would not want to employ that particular technology."

Soames suggested that recording controls were proposed during the initial stages of Sky+ development, but had not been approved. He declined to discuss why the controls might have been implemented, or why they couldn't simply be removed in a future software update.

But Nick James, head of Sky's research and development department, stated categorically that no recording controls were ever included in the Sky+ system.

"It's something that may be introduced in future," he explained. "But it's not something we consider critical. It's not lined up for any of the next few software releases."

According to James, one possible use for recording restrictions would be if a broadcaster did not have "archive rights" for a programme.

But he reaffirmed Sky's opposition to such restrictions being used: "We're certainly not aware of any broadcasters not wanting their programmes to be recorded. We'd support the public view that they should be able to record whatever they want."

It is clear that Sky is not keen for this issue to be brought to the public's attention. Although representatives have been mostly helpful in answering questions on the subject, one spokesman said that Sky would prefer reporters and reviewers to "focus on the positive aspects of what Sky Plus can do, not what it can't do".

But many subscribers to the Sky+ service will be annoyed to learn that they have paid for equipment that may be of diminishing use to them in future.

According to Sky, customers are not warned of the possible restrictions simply because "nobody is really focussing on that".

An enquiry to the Sky+ order line, posing as a potential customer, received a non-committal response: "As far as we know there are no plans to block recording of any channels on the Sky Plus system, but that may change in future. We have no knowledge of it."

A salesman at Dixons, one of the major retailers supplying Sky+ equipment, was more forthcoming: "It's certainly possible. All they have to do is send out a control signal and they can stop you from recording anything they want."

Another feature rumoured to be hidden within the Sky+ system would prevent viewers from fast-forwarding through adverts in recorded programmes. But according to Sky, that feature "absolutely does not exist".

Sky is expected to announce on Friday how many households have subscribed to Sky+ in its first five months of operation. The standard Sky Digital service has 5.5m subscribers and the take-up rate of the enhanced service is said to have been much higher than anticipated. ®

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