Selectable Output Control? Sounds good, but who’s doing the selecting?
Selectable Output Control? Sounds good, but who’s doing the selecting?
Selectable Output Control? Sounds good, but who’s doing the selecting?

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    On May 9, the MPAA filed a petition to waive the FCC's ruling against selectable output control (SOC) (PDF). The MPAA and its studio constituents seek to allow multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) — that is, cable companies — the power to turn off the digital and analog outputs on your devices, as they choose. This includes not only cable boxes, but also anything connected to your cable signal, such as your Tivo, your Slingbox, or even a TV using CableCARD.

    The MPAA and its studio constituents are interested in releasing theatrical releases to home viewers earlier than ever, possibly because box office receipts are growing at a slower rate than in the past decade. Before, release windows for video-on-demand and pay-per-view became available approximately five months after the theatrical release. By accelerating this window into the one to two month range, studios would capitalize on people who want to watch a movie when it comes out in theaters, but who would rather stay at home. However, the MPAA, always concerned about copyright infringement, conditioned this acceleration on the ability to further prevent piracy by allowing MVPDs to embed data that would turn off any output connector it thinks is a liability.

    In 2004, the FCC ruled that no one may “embed data . . . so as to prevent its output through any analog or digital output” (18 FCC Rcd. 20885, codified as 47 CFR § 76.1903). That order agreed with public interest advocates that there were already good ways for MVPDs to protect their copyrights by shutting off “compromised” outputs with HDCP, as mandated by the HDMI 1.3 spec. Cable companies could revoke decryption keys used on hacked digital outputs under HDCP; analog outputs would be downrezzed under a prior private agreement known as the DTCP license. However, it opined that selectable output control went one step too far. MVPDs could not embed any information signaling that a device must wholly shut down an output type. In addition, the FCC also recognized that selectable output control would block certain legal fair use rights, such as time-shifting.

    Any limitation on how a consumer can use a signal has two parts: first, the signal must carry metadata indicating the restriction, and second, the device receiving the signal must respect it. Notably, the FCC specifically and explicitly regulated only the content of the signal before it entered the customer's home. It seemed as though they were wary of repeating the broadcast flag fiasco, wherein the DC Circuit Court of Appeals held that the FCC had no authority “to regulate consumer electronic devices . . . when those devices are not engaged in the process of radio or wire transmission.”

    In response, the industry content producers and MVPDs made private agreements with the sole cable technology licensing authority, CableLabs, to draft new cable specifications (OCAP, now called tru2way (PDF)) supporting the ability to disable analog and digital outputs at the whim of the content provider. Because of this licensing loophole, all tru2way devices must respect the SOC flag, even though the FCC has no regulatory control over devices. Since future devices will respect the SOC flag, the MPAA and the MVPDs have petitioned to remove the second barrier to turning off analog outputs — a barrier specifically erected by the FCC in 2004 to protect your fair use rights.

    A huge problem with implementing SOC is that it utterly fails at being backward compatible. Current devices don't know how to listen to SOC data, because it was never in the old spec. Furthermore, SOC can only protect copyrights if all your devices in the “wall-to-screen” signal path handle a protected, encrypted digital signal. If at one point a device is capable of handing off an unencrypted signal, it can be attacked at that juncture, and you've defeated the purpose of digital rights management. This means that every single device in your home theater must be HDCP compliant — an HDCP cable box and HDCP DVR will be of no use unless your TV can also handle HDCP-encrypted content.

    No one is quite sure yet what will happen if you order one of these “On-demand-earlier” movies if you're missing a single HDCP-enabled box in your system. Even the MPAA's petition only says that they expect MVPDs to give clear notice that you'll need an updated system to handle this content. The end result is this: In order for you to watch an on-demand movie three months before you could before, you need to upgrade your entire home entertainment system to being fully HDCP-compliant.

    Since the HDMI spec only mandated full HDCP compliance in June 2006, it is very unlikely that most people have the correct equipment. If you have a Slingbox, a pre-Series 3 Tivo, or even a TV made before 2006, you could be out of luck. And the MPAA and MVPDs won't be able to tell if you are or not, before you buy the movie.

    It all makes zero sense. Because there's no provision to stop you from buying an on-demand movie if your TV doesn't support HDCP, it's very possible that you could be charged first, and you find out that something's rotten in the state of cable only after the movie can't start up.

    We really don't think that anyone should be able to tell you what you can do with a movie you bought, so long as you aren't breaking the law. If you buy a DVD, you can watch it at 8pm instead of 6, or in the bedroom instead of the living room. If you get a pay-per-view, why shouldn't you be able to watch it later, or in a different room? If the FCC or movie companies start dictating what technology can do, it would stifle innovation and competition.

    Finally, here's an interesting scenario lurking in the shadows. With the ability to turn off industry-standard outputs such as component video and HDMI, MVPDs and movie studios would have the power to shut off all currently available outputs. Although this would be a bad business decision (if temporarily funny), it would be more disturbing if these organizations then restricted output to a new, proprietary output only available from partner manufacturers. For any corporation with both content production and device manufacturing arms (like Sony), this would be a potential opportunity to create a closed platform monopoly.