A broadcast flag is a set of status bits sent in the data stream of a digital television program that indicates whether or not it can be recorded, or if there are any restrictions on recorded content. Possible restrictions include inability to save a digital program to a computer disk or other non-volatile storage, inability to make secondary copies of recorded content (in order to share or archive), forceful reduction of quality when recording (such as reducing high-definition video to the resolution of standard TVs, and inability to skip over commercials. In the United States, new television ATSC tuner|receivers using the ATSC standard were supposed to incorporate this functionality by July 1, 2005, but a federal court struck down the Federal Communications Commission's rule to this effect on May 6. The stated intention of the broadcast flag was to prevent copyright infringement, but many have asserted that broadcast flags interfere with the fair use rights of the viewing public.
The FCC's rule is in 47 CFR 73.9002(b) and the following sections, stating in part: "No party shall sell or distribute in interstate commerce a Covered Demodulator Product that does not comply with the Demodulator Compliance Requirements and Demodulator Robustness Requirements." According to the rule, hardware must "actively thwart" piracy.
The rule's Demodulator Compliance Requirements insists that all high-definition television demodulators must "listen" for the flag (or assume it to be present in all signals). Flagged content must be output only to "protected outputs," or in degraded form through analog outputs or digital outputs with visual resolution of 720x480 pixels or less. Flagged content may be recorded only by "authorized" methods, which may include tethering of recordings to a single device.
Since broadcast flags could be activated at any time, a viewer who often records a program might suddenly find that it is no longer possible to save their favourite show. This and other reasons lead many to see the flags as a direct affront to consumer rights.
Particularly troubling to open source developers are the Demodulator Robustness Requirements. Devices must be "robust" against user access or modifications so that someone could not easily alter it to ignore the broadcast flags that permit access to the full digital stream. Since open-source device drivers are by design user-modifiable, a PC TV tuner card with open-source drivers would not be "robust". It is unclear whether binary-only drivers would qualify. Projects could also be affected at the application level. In theory it would likely be illegal for open-source projects such as the MythTV project, which creates personal video recorder (PVR) software, to interface with digital television demodulators.
The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the FCC had exceeded its authority in creating this rule. The court stated that the commission could not prohibit the manufacture of computer or video hardware without copy protection technology because the FCC only has authority to regulate communications, not devices that receive communications. It is possible that a higher court may overturn this ruling, or the United States Congress may get lobbied by industry interests into granting such authority to the FCC. Some of the major U.S. television networks have stated in the past that they will stop broadcasting high-definition content if the rule does not go into effect.
If the proposed rule were ever to be reinstated, it is possible that non-compliant decoders will be manufactured for market in other locales, since Japan and the United States are the only countries to have such regulations. Some of these devices could find their way into "broadcast flag" countries like the United States.
With the coming of digital radio, the recording industry is attempting to change the ground rules for copyright of songs played on radio. Currently, over the air (i.e. broadcast but not Internet) radio stations may play songs freely but RIAA wants Congress to insert a radio broadcast flag.
- Electronic Frontier Foundation's Broadcast Flag page
- The Broadcast Flag and "Plug & Play": The FCC's Lockdown of Digital Television
- U.S. District Court shoots down broadcast flag (CNET)
- Broadcast Flag: Media Industry May Try to Steal the Law - June 2005 MP3 Newswire article
- Circuit Court ruling striking down (Abode PDF format)