The entertainment industry told lawmakers that without copy protection the threat of extensive piracy will force the industry to move its best programming to pay services such as cable and satellite TV.
"Over-the-air television as we know it today will be a thing of the past," said Fritz Attaway, an executive vice president with the Motion Picture Association of America. He testified before the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Internet.
The entertainment industry has proposed technology called a "broadcast flag," an electronic marker in digital programming that could thwart or limit copying or distribution of pirated broadcasts over the Internet. Many in the industry fear high-quality broadcasts could be sold online.
The Federal Communications Commission is studying whether to require the marker, but it is unclear when its review will be finished, said Kenneth Ferree, chief of the FCC's media bureau.
Congress has set a goal of December 2006 for TV broadcasters to switch from analog to digital signals, which offer more vivid pictures and crisper sound. The FCC is concerned the piracy issue could slow that transition.
Opponents of the broadcast flag say it won't prevent piracy, but will restrict consumers who want to make copies for personal use.
"The more we restrict how our customers can use our products, the more likely they are to be annoyed," said Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association. The association represents technology companies, including one that develops software used by people who share music files online.
Attaway used a laptop computer and a projector to show lawmakers excerpts from an episode of the television show "24," which his staff downloaded from the Internet the day before the hearing. He said the Internet allows for "effortless and costless worldwide distribution of copies."
Critics of the entertainment industry say downloading movies and television programs from the Internet is much more difficult.
It is easier and cheaper to record a movie on a VHS tape and send it through the mail than to record a digital broadcast and transmit it over the Internet, said Edward Felten, a computer science professor at Princeton University. Felten made his comments in a filing with the FCC.
Felten said digital piracy requires computer equipment that can contain the massive files used for high-quality video. Such files can take days to upload and download through file sharing networks and are too big to send by e-mail.
Attaway said it's only a matter of time before the process becomes easier.
"If you make the assumption that there will be no technological progress above and beyond the technology that exists today, I would agree with them," Attaway said. "But I don't think it's reasonable or even rational to make that assumption."
By David Ho