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Proposed Treaty on TV Signals Spurs Criticism

Times Staff Writer

The proposal sounds modest enough: Broadcasters want to stop international pirates from hijacking American TV signals and re-transmitting them over the Internet.

But the high-tech industry and digital rights advocates see something more sinister in the fine print of a proposed international treaty being negotiated this week in Geneva. They fear it will end up restricting how people can use legally recorded shows stashed on their TiVos or computer hard drives.

“When I look at the language of the treaty, I begin to get frightened,” said Jim Burger, an attorney who specializes in intellectual property issues and represents high-tech companies, including TiVo Inc.

Pushed by U.S. and European TV networks, the treaty being considered by a World Intellectual Property Organization committee would prohibit the theft of their signals, as well as those from cable and satellite broadcasters. TV broadcasters said they were not targeting average viewers recording their favorite shows, just large-scale thieves stealing their business.

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“If you send our signal ... to 100,000 people so it ruins our ability to market our signals, we ought to be able to prohibit that,” said Ben Ivins, senior associate general counsel for the National Assn. of Broadcasters, which has been pressing for the treaty for several years.

But in what is shaping up as the next major battle in the fight over digital content, a coalition of phone companies, information technology firms and digital rights advocates warn the proposed treaty could do much more and is working to derail it.

The treaty’s broad language would create an expansive new copyright on TV signals that could lead to higher prices and more restrictions on home recording. Watching shows on a digital video recorder, transmitting a football game to a laptop via services such as SlingBox or simply moving video from one device to another in a home network would technically be considered a retransmission that requires the broadcaster’s OK.

Critics say it’s another desperate attempt by the broadcast industry to use legislation to restrict technological innovation and keep a dying business model on life support. The pattern, they say, stretches all the way back to the battle over the first Betamax video recorders when the industry fought new technology with legislation and lawsuits.

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The entertainment industry has sought legislative intervention in the face of other technological advances. The advent of the VCR led to a suit over time shifting that it ultimately lost before the Supreme Court in 1984.

More recently, the creation of digital TV led broadcasters to press Congress to require anti-copying technology, called the broadcast flag, be embedded in the signal. Congress has resisted. It’s also failed to take up a push by movie studios for legislation to plug a technological hole that allows people to bypass copy protection on DVDs.

Treaty foes said broadcasters could use the new copyright as leverage to strike more favorable licensing deals with manufacturers or to force them to build in blocking technology, such as preventing a recorded show from being burned to a DVD.

“Many believe that the broadcasters see this exclusive right as a way to protect an industry that is rapidly being eclipsed by technological development,” said Matthew Schruers, senior counsel for litigation and legislative affairs at the Computer & Communications Industry Assn., an industry trade group. “There is a fear that right could prevent the use of cool new devices because people can’t license them or because the broadcasters don’t want to license them.”

The coalition boasts major companies such as AT&T; Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., Intel Corp. and Dell Inc. Verizon acknowledged that the treaty could be a help as it rolls out cable TV service, but it worries that the company’s larger business of Internet access could suffer because of potential liability for illegal retransmissions.

“The reason why they want this right ... is they can get additional money out of players they haven’t been able to charge before,” Sarah Deutsch, Verizon’s vice president and associate general counsel, said of traditional broadcasters. “The whole concept of giving an intellectual property right to a signal is ridiculous.”

Under the proposed treaty, the broadcaster of a TV signal -- over the air or via satellite or cable -- would get a 50-year copyright. The right would be in addition to the copyright already given to a program’s creator.

The retransmission of TV signals is illegal under U.S. law. But many countries give stronger protection to broadcast signals under a 1961 treaty that the U.S. never joined. The World Intellectual Property Organization, an agency of the United Nations based in Geneva, has been trying to update that treaty for the digital age.

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Broadcasters said technological advances had made it easier to steal signals, and the Internet is a ready-made distribution network. They point to a Canadian company, ICraveTV.com, that hijacked signals from four Buffalo, N.Y., stations in 1999 and shipped them to their users. A U.S. judge shut down the site for infringing the copyrights on the programming.

Broadcasters complain that there’s no similar right covering the signals, and they’re losing advertising revenue because of pirates in the Caribbean, Mexico and China. There are no precise dollar figures for TV signal piracy in the U.S. But this summer, Envisional Ltd., a British Internet monitoring company, estimated each episode of the most popular TV shows is downloaded about a million times.

The proposed treaty has been progressing quietly, but opposition has been building in recent months. This spring, a study prepared for UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, concluded that the proposed treaty “could prevent or restrict” the flow of news broadcasts and other information considered in the public domain.

Opponents of the treaty said broadcasters could accomplish their anti-piracy goals with a narrow international pact that simply prohibits the theft of TV signals. Their push for more expansive copyright protection arouses suspicions.

“Thou shalt not steal is something we appreciate and think a treaty could be based on that,” said Jeff Lawrence, director of global content policy for Intel. “We’re just uncomfortable with starting to create whole new categories of intellectual property rights to potentially protect particular business models.”

But broadcasters said they needed the ability not only to stop piracy but also to license it to bring in more money abroad.

The U.S. delegation has been pushing for the treaty, along with its European counterparts. If the World Intellectual Property Organization approves a treaty, it will be effective only in countries that pass separate implementing legislation. Broadcasters said Congress could limit the treaty’s scope in the U.S., adding traditional protections for personal use of copyrighted materials, known as fair use.

But treaty opponents said it might be hard to stop the treaty’s momentum once it was approved internationally. And the ultimate victims may be average viewers who find their ability to record TV programs limited or more costly because of broadcasters’ efforts.

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“It shows an old-fashioned way to look at technology and innovation,” said Manon Ress of the Consumer Project on Technology, an international organization that focuses on the flow of information.


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