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Content Distribution Hardware Agree: result may influence home entertainment networking


Score a small victory for Fair Use and the rights of cable TV viewers (at least indirectly). Today, in an obscure agreement, administrative oversight consortiums representing cable companies (CableLabs) and electronics makers (5C), and with the approval of the content industry (TV/Film studios),  agreed to support an encryption and data management standard for streaming content within home networks.

At issue is the ability to watch and record digital programming within your home and then stream it from one device to another on a local network.   Imagine, record a TV show on your DVR, stream it live, or delayed, to your home office computer, or shift it to the TV in your bedroom.  Store it on a network hard drive rather than the drive on board your Tivo box.  Watch it in one room, while recording something else in another.

But wait you ask? Isn’t place shifting technology already here?  Isn’t this already possible?  The answer is, yes, it is available but with caveats. Slingbox, from Sling Media, provides hardware with some of this functionality, as does Sony for its Location Free TV; and that’s just  a sampling of commercial offerings. There are a host of Tivo “hacks” that supposedly make similar possible from your set-top.   But these devices and methods aside,  there remains a battle simmering over what is permissible within the range of rights available to consumers as both cable customers (subject to a usage agreement) and under Fair Use tests of copyright law.   

Hanging over consumer heads has been the possibility that using a Slingbox like device could possibly be called infringement, or a violation of their cable service agreement. Today’s agreement could remove those concerns, or at least, help reduce the impact, or scale, of those debates.

By agreeing to use the Digital Transmission Copy Protection over IP (DTCP-IP) standard the industry is effectively setting a standard under which they won’t challenge in-home, in-network distribution of the content.

What does it entail:   DTCP-IP is an encryption standard or a digital rights management (DRM) technology.  It encodes the data so that it is only usable within the home network.  The idea is to make it possible for both in home distribution but also to allow network providers to try and protect against piracy of pay-per-view and video-on-demand programs.

Generally, I’m an open advocate against DRM technologies, especially with the music industry.  In this case, how the DRM solution is used will influence my position more than anything else.  If the application of DTCP-IP is limited to encrypting content for use within the home network , and a consumer can freely distribute the content around the network, (or to portable devices permissibly connected to it) than it’s not a bad thing. 

The potential stumbling point is how different devices, from different makers, will decode the encryption.  If the magic happens behind the scenes and doesn’t require added cost, or effect the consumer experience – than it’d be a success.  If consumers are saddled with the costs or requirement of new devices, or any more burden than adding a SIM card (which itself borders on trouble when factoring in portable devices), different story.  The question will be: is the DRM solution transparent within the home or does it create a bog of trouble we have to slosh through. Bogs are bad.

Depending on how those questions are answered,  usage of DTCP-IP could be a net positive or negative.  On the positive side, it will ease the concerns of hardware and content manufacturers.  That could encourage a proliferation of new home-entertainment networking products. That’s not a bad thing.  The solution also could help prevent FCC regulatory intervention, also not bad.  Both more devices and less regulation could be counted as those indirect victories scored for consumers.

There were two signatories for today’s agreement.  CableLabs was founded in 1988 as research and development organization for cable telecom technologies.   It’s run and administered as a non-profit on behalf of Cable Co’s and tasked with setting specifications and insuring interoperability among different cable systems.  5C, the other signatory, is also known as the Digital Transmission Licensing Administrator.  It was set up in 1998 as a partnership between Hitachi, Intel, Matsushita, Sony and Toshiba to represent the licensing needs of consumer electronics makers in this marketplace.

The deal was characterized as made in “cooperation with” Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Disney and Warner Brothers.

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