Regulating Radios

Broadcast flag at half-mast.


Consumer groups and consumer electronics companies are already up in arms over federal "broadcast flag" regulations, which will require that, as of mid-2005, new digital video recorders must recognize a copyright watermark in digital television broadcasts and prevent users from copying or sharing content without permission. Now the Recording Industry Association of America is pushing a broadcast flag for digital radio. The industry fears a radio equivalent of TiVo, a high-tech version of the old practice of taping songs off the radio.

A radio TiVo sounds great to Mike Godwin, senior technology counsel for Public Knowledge, one of several groups that has challenged the video broadcast flag. Godwin, a reason contributing editor, argues that all forms of the broadcast flag would limit the longstanding right of consumers to save and copy content for personal use and that the case for the radio flag is especially weak. "There is no evidence," says Godwin, "that broadcasters are withholding audio content in the absence of a flag." He also points out that the TV flag is part of an attempt to hasten a shift to digital broadcasting that would allow the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to recover large swaths of spectrum. There is no such question of spectrum recovery in the case of radio.

Flag opponents won a qualified victory at an April FCC meeting when the agency decided to issue a "notice of inquiry" into a radio flag rather than proceeding directly with rule making as the music industry had hoped. But Godwin and his allies won't have much time to rest on their laurels: A treaty that the World Intellectual Property Organization was expected to consider in June would require signatory nations to impose still-more-restrictive broadcast flag rules.