Lawmakers Parrot MPAA, Say Unlocked Set-Top Boxes Could Boost Piracy

The movie industry recently warned the Federal Communications Commission that a proposal to unlock set-top boxes could boost piracy by making it easier for consumers to find unlicensed material.

The industry's theory is that new set-top boxes will offer consumers "one-stop shopping" for all types of programs -- whether licensed or not. "Devices and applications to facilitate piracy exist today, but they will become vastly more attractive and tremendously harmful if the FCC makes it possible to co-mingle authorized content ... with pirated content from the Internet," the Motion Picture Association of America argues in comments opposing FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal to unlock cable boxes.

That bit of speculation appears to have persuaded leaders of the House Judiciary Committee. "Creators have shared concerns that under the FCC's proposed rule, future set-top boxes or their replacements could purposely be designed to distribute pirated content," Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) and John Conyers (D-Michigan) write to the FCC. "For example, apps such as Popcorn Time that focus on providing access to piratical content have tried to match the format and ease of use of legitimate apps to mask the theft of copyrighted content. Creators are legitimately worried about the prospect that future set top boxes, or their functional equivalents, could incorporate apps such as Popcorn Time or its functionality."



If passed, the FCC's proposal will enable app and device makers to develop boxes that can access pay-TV programs. The result is that consumers will be able to access over-the-top services and pay-TV from a single device. People will also be able to more easily stream pay-TV shows to tablets or smartphones.

Most customers who purchase pay-TV from cable and satellite providers currently rent set-top boxes, at an average cost of $231 a year. People who also watch online video on a TV screen do so via separate streaming devices -- like Rokus or Amazon Fire TVs -- while people who watch TV shows on tablets or smartphones typically do so via apps.

The White House backs the plan to unlock cable boxes, as do consumer advocacy organizations and editorial boards of major newspapers, including The New York Times, USA Today, and Chicago Tribune.

Google and Amazon, which also support the proposal, question the logic of the MPAA's piracy arguments, given that consumers can already access many TV programs online.

Google points out in its FCC comments that piracy has decreased in the past, after programs became available on the Web. The company references a Carnegie Mellon University study concluding that piracy for ABC's material dropped by 20% after it was added to Hulu.

"Increasing choice and access to convenient and legal digital content offerings is one of the best tools to fight piracy," Google says.

For their part, Goodlatte and Conyers are urging the FCC to make sure that new set-top box rules won't hurt "the marketplace of legal copyrighted works."

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