Is the Movie Industry Crazy for Wanting to Lock Down Its Blockbusters?

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Big movie studios want to move up VOD windows to even before a film’s DVD release. But before they do that, they want to make sure a cable subscriber who orders a blockbuster in HD can’t rip it, and then push it out to millions of his closest friends over a peer-to-peer network.

The technical feature that would let cable operators block the copying of VOD titles from set-tops is “selectable output control.” The MPAA has a waiver pending before the FCC that would permit cable operators to enable SOC.

The waiver is opposed by public-interest groups like Public Knowledge, which says SOC would “inhibit future innovation, obstruct interoperability, limit fair use and restrict consumer choice. Worst of all, it could force you to buy all new home entertainment gear in order to watch Hollywood films over cable.” (Public Knowledge last week asserted the FCC was about to OK the waiver but the agency said Friday no decision has been made yet.)

Is this really an anti-consumer power grab by Hollywood that would prevent Grandma from watching Avatar A.S.A.P. on her circa-1989 analog TV (or force her to upgrade to a newer HDTV that supports HDMI)?

The first thing to point out is that SOC would actually give cable viewers more choice, by making studios comfortable with putting movies on VOD earlier.

NCTA President & CEO Kyle McSlarrow made this point in a blog post Friday, saying the content controls are what make this possible: “While content producers already make some less expensive independent movies available to cable at the same time they are in theaters, it’s clear that major studios will not release their blockbuster films early unless we can guarantee proper protection.”

Public Knowledge has countered the MPAA has not provided “a shred of relevant data in the record to support its claim that the ability to turn off video outputs on common consumer electronics could be used to effectively combat piracy.” Of course, all the MPAA needs to do here is point to the catastrophic decline of the music industry’s CD sales for an example of what happens to a content industry when unfettered digital copying is possible.

I confess there’s something about the SOC proposal that’s annoying to me, as a consumer. Why couldn’t I watch that VOD title I just paid $9.99 or whatever for on my analog set? You know: Why are they treating me like I’m a criminal who’s gonna pirate their lousy movie? I get the same feeling every time I see that blue FBI screen warning me that I could face a $250,000 fine if I illegally copy the DVD I’m watching.

But I also get that it’s part of the price of admission — that the studios are putting this particular restriction in place to make sure there will be an incentive for people to pay for their stuff. (Not that I’d pay $9.99 to watch Avatar a couple of weeks before it’s available on Netflix, but that’s another story.)

Unfortunately for the rest of us, the bad apples out there have made locking down premium digital content a business necessity.

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