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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

TiVo vs. the Broadcast Flag Wavers

By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page F06

TiVo, the company that makes the digital-video-recorder boxes that inspire such strange idolatry among their users, is in a weird spot. It's asking the Federal Communications Commission for permission to add a new feature -- the option for a TiVo user to send recorded digital TV programs via the Internet to nine other people.

Huh? Permission? Doesn't the government's involvement in consumer electronics stop with making sure that a gadget doesn't jam your neighbor's reception or electrocute you? Since when do the feds get to vote on product designs?

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The answer is, since last November, when the FCC voted to require manufacturers to support the "broadcast flag" system by July 1 of next year. This convoluted mechanism aims to stop full-quality copies of digital broadcasts from circulating on the Internet.

The FCC didn't mandate any one anti-file-sharing scheme and instead invited companies to submit their own proposals, which brings us to TiVo's vaguely Soviet predicament. Among the schemes a handful of firms have proposed, only TiVo's would allow tightly controlled online transfers of recorded programs.

For this, the company has drawn the ire of the National Football League and the Motion Picture Association of America, which have asked the FCC to deny TiVo's proposal.

The NFL says that TiVo's Internet-sharing feature will allow people to send game broadcasts to blacked-out viewers in real time (a team's home game can be aired locally only if it sells out beforehand).

"It's a question of pure ability to sell tickets," said Frank Hawkins, the NFL's senior vice president for business affairs. "Buffalo typically sells out September and October, but they've got an open-air stadium. They'll never sell out those December games if they are unable to enforce the blackout rule."

This is an important point: The NFL is not asking the FCC to protect its television business -- never mind that the flag exists only to stop indiscriminate file sharing, not cure every copyright-infringement issue.

No, the NFL is asking for help with a stadium business, one that already benefits from massive government welfare. (A December 2002 Buffalo News story calculated that the taxpayers of Erie County, N.Y., had anted up about $148 million for the Bills and their stadium over the previous decade.)

In other words, the league is asking manufacturers and viewers to further subsidize team owners who are already gorging themselves at the public trough.

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