RealTime IT News

Holy Analog Hole, Batman!

It's back: the big, bad scary legislative idea to plug the analog hole.

To the technorati, that would be the analog reconversion issue. For technology executives outside of digital rights management (DRM) shops, it would be dreaded government-mandated standards.

For the rest of us, it's just another example of Hollywood's relentless march to strip away any and all fair use rights to legally purchased content, online or off.

The analog hole refers to converting a digital video property into an analog copy and then re-digitizing it back to digital. DRM is lost in the wash, although the process degrades the original digital version.

Hollywood frets, as ever, over piracy. In particular, rampant global Internet piracy drives show biz to paroxysms of bad law ideas.

"Like a black hole, the analog hole sucks in all content protections," warns motion picture industry chief Dan Glickman.

Worse, complain the media moguls, it's perfectly legal.

"Of particular significance is the fact that exploitation of the analog hole requires no act of circumvention nor any unauthorized circumvention devices prohibited by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)," Glickman said.

Hollywood brought the analog hole issue to Washington three years ago when, no doubt to its discontent, the studios discovered they hadn't nailed down everything in sight through the 1998 DMCA.

That crafty piece of Hollywood script legislation preserves fair use rights in a digital world but prohibits any devices that might make that happen. Under the DMCA, Hollywood sets the fair use rights.

Hollywood's response in 2003 was legislation calling for a total ban on the redistribution of video content and draconian restrictions on other types of content copying.

Washington rejected the notion on the simple premise that Hollywood itself pointed to the analog hole as proof the DMCA wasn't overly restrictive.

Undeterred, the movie industry is back with the Digital Transition Content Security Act that would mandate "certain" analog conversion devices "preserve digital content security measures."

"What is clear is that this bill would impose a massive government design mandate on every product capable of digitizing analog video signals," the Consumer Electronics Association's Michael Petricone told a House panel.

"Not just PCs and televisions but those found on airplanes, automobiles, medical devices and technical equipment."

The bill would have virtually all electronic gear manufactured in the U.S. respond to a copy protection signal in a digital video stream to pass along DRM protections when converting the video to analog.

Analog video streams would also have to respond to the signal and pass on the copy protection to digital video outputs.

That's not the bad part of the proposed law. DRM, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.

"A key concern is that one of the required copy protection technologies is largely unknown as to its cost, operation and licensing status," Petricone said.

Hollywood, of course, wants to hand pick the DRM technology standard winner.

That would be the Veil Rights Assertion Mark (VRAM) technology developed by Veil Interactive Technologies of El Segundo, Calif. Veil is an acronym for Video Encoded Invisible Light.

Alas, Hollywood failed to inform electronics makers of the proposed standard.

"Regrettably, the analog hole bill is an incomprehensible and impractical proposal which the MPAA did not share with us," Petricone said.

"I say regrettably, because the fact is that the [consumer electronics] industry has long been prepared to address the analog hole issue. It has worked with [Motion Picture Association of America] members toward consensus solutions."

"But without consensus from all affected industries in an open and fair process, we cannot support this legislation."

But that's not the bad part either.

After all, perhaps the company that develops the Batman TV-activated Batmobile and Batlink game (the toys react to invisible light emissions streaming from the television screen during broadcasts of The Batman cartoon series) has the best technology.

You simply can't make this stuff up, folks.

No, the worse part is that the legislation would leave it to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to conduct ongoing rule-making proceedings to update technologies capable of meeting the goal to block any technology capable of enabling fair use rights.

Yes, that's right, the PTO, home of litigation central for all things tech.

"All key decisions will be left up to the Patent and Trademark Office," Petricone said. "It is unclear how the PTO could make these decisions or who would exercise oversight over its judgments.

Fortunately, the legislation is gathering dust in the House.

Less fortunately, the Senate Judiciary Committee is now interested in plugging the analog hole and plans to hold a Wednesday morning hearing on Bat signals and whatnot.

"Be assured there is no industry or other consensus on the [Veil technology] mandated in the bill," Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge told Congress.

"Their prohibitions would require redesign of a whole range of currently legal consumer devices. Importantly, it would also restrict lawful uses of analog content."

Hopefully, this bad legislation will eventually find the same dusty bin it has in the House.