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Video UnDemand


Should movie studios be able to control how consumers use playback devices to watch video on demand? The Motion Picture Association of America, a trade group representing major movie studios, thinks so, but it faces tough opposition from tech policy and consumer groups.

Movie studios are petitioning the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to permit the use of a technology known as "selectable output control"—code hidden in video streams that would allow the studios to determine which devices consumers can use to play them. Basically, the studios want the sole power to keep their content off your DVD player, sound system, or TV if they so desire.

Since 2003, when the idea was first proposed, the FCC has prohibited content owners from exercising such control. But movie studios have recently ramped up their campaign to get the FCC's permission. In a November letter to the FCC, a law firm representing the studios argued that the scheme is crucial to their plans to start releasing streaming, high-definition digital copies of movies prior to their release on DVD. "MPAA-member studios," the letter said, "have a legitimate, well-founded concern that distribution of high-value, high-definition movies prior to their release on DVD or other prerecorded media would present a significant risk of content theft."

Michael Kwun of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a tech-focused nonprofit group, calls the idea "crazy," writing that "if the MPAA has its way, we'll be well on the way to a world in which every new feature to every home theater product has to be pre-approved by the content industry." And the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge notes that some smaller Hollywood studios already release films digitally and in theaters simultaneously, indicating that selectable output is not necessary.

Still, that doesn't mean the studios shouldn't be allowed to experiment. If the playback limitations are too restrictive, Ryan Radia of the Competitive Enterprise Institute notes, "the market will punish overly aggressive" technologies designed to prevent piracy.