Copyright Protection of Digital Television: The Broadcast Video Flag
Copyright Protection of Digital Television:
The Broadcast Video Flag
January 11, 2007
Brian T. Yeh
American Law Division
Copyright Protection of Digital Television:
The Broadcast Video Flag
In November 2003, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted
a rule that required all digital devices capable of receiving digital television (DTV)
broadcasts over the air, and sold after July 1, 2005, to incorporate technology that
would recognize and abide by the broadcast video flag, a content-protection signal
that broadcasters may choose to embed into a digital broadcast transmission as a way
to prevent unauthorized redistribution of DTV content. However, in October 2004,
the American Library Association and eight organizations representing a large
number of libraries and consumers filed a lawsuit that challenged the power of the
FCC to promulgate such a rule. In May 2005, the United States Court of Appeals for
the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in American Library Association v. Federal
Communications Commission that the FCC had exceeded the scope of its delegated
authority in imposing the broadcast flag regime, and the court thus reversed and
vacated the FCC’s broadcast flag order.
Parties holding a copyright interest in content transmitted through DTV
broadcasts, in particular broadcasters and television program creators, remain
concerned about the unauthorized distribution and reproduction of copyrighted DTV
content and thus continue to advocate the adoption of a broadcast video flag.
However, several consumer, educational, and technology groups raise objections to
the broadcast flag because, in their view, it would place technological, financial, and
regulatory burdens that may stifle innovation, limit the consumer’s ability to use
DTV broadcasts in accordance with the Copyright Act’s “fair use” principles, and
possibly frustrate the use of digital television content by educators and librarians in
distance education programs.
This report provides a brief explanation of the broadcast video flag and its
relationship to digital television and summarizes the American Library Association
judicial opinion. The report also examines a legislative proposal introduced in the
109th Congress, the Digital Content Protection Act of 2006, which appeared as
portions of two bills, S. 2686 and H.R. 5252 (as reported in the Senate), that would
have expressly granted statutory authority to the FCC under the Communications Act
of 1934 to promulgate regulations implementing a broadcast video flag system.
Although not enacted, these bills represent approaches to authorizing the broadcast
video flag system that may be of interest to the 110th Congress.
In troduction ..................................................1
What Is DTV?............................................1
The Broadcast Video Flag.......................................2
Digital Television Implementation Under the Telecommunications
Act of 1996..........................................4
Possible Implications of the Broadcast Video Flag....................5
Legal Challenges to the Broadcast Video Flag.......................6
Broadcast Video Flag Legislation Introduced in the 109th Congress.......7
Copyright Protection of Digital Television:
The Broadcast Video Flag
Technological advances, a looming statutory deadline, and the need to reclaim
analog spectrum occupied by television broadcasters have put digital television
(DTV) on a fast track. At the same time, development of digital television has
necessitated balancing the competing interests of content holders and consumer and
technological industries. Reconciling these interests has led to the development of
a broadcast video flag to combat unauthorized redistribution of content broadcast
through digital television signals.1 The move to protect digital content has been
given urgency by the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) determination
that broadcast transmissions be digital by December 31, 2006.2 The 105th Congress,3
in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, P.L. 105-33, made this date statutory.
However, the lack of widespread purchase and adoption by consumers of digitalth
television equipment prompted the 109 Congress to extend the 2006 deadline; a
provision of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, P.L. 109-171, established a “firm
deadline” of February 17, 2009, for the digital transition.
What Is DTV? Digital Television is a new television service representing the
most significant development in television technology since the advent of color
television in the 1950s. Three major components of DTV service must be present for
consumers to enjoy a fully realized high-definition television viewing experience.
First, digital programming must be available. Digital programming is content
assembled with digital cameras and other digital production equipment. Second,
digital programming must be delivered to the consumer via a digital signal. Third,
consumers must have digital television equipment capable of receiving the digital
signal and displaying digital programming for viewing.4
Developing a protocol for transmitting and receiving digital television in a way
that accommodated competing interests has proved challenging. Digital content, like
1 For information about a proposed flag for digital audio broadcasts, see CRS Report
RS22489, Copyright Protection of Digital Audio Radio Broadcasts: The “Audio Flag,” by
Jared Huber and Brian T. Yeh.
2 Federal Communications Commission, In the Matter of Advanced Television Systems and
Their Impact Upon the Existing Television Broadcast Service: Fifth Report & Order, 12
F.C.C. Rec. 12809, 12811-12812 (1997) (hereinafter FIFTH REPORT).
3 This date is codified at 47 U.S.C. § 309(j)(14)(A).
4 For more information on DTV, see CRS Report RL31260, Digital Television: An
Overview, by Lennard Kruger.
other media, can be relatively easily duplicated and distributed, especially with the
aid of the Internet.5 Unlike other types of content, duplication of digital information
does not degrade the original. Whereas the quality of a VHS tape degrades after
successive copies, a DVD may be copied almost infinitely with no effect on the
quality of the medium. It is because of the ease and inexhaustible potential of
copying digital media, coupled with the proliferation of Internet peer-to-peer file-
sharing services, that content providers have greeted this new technology with some
The Broadcast Video Flag
The broadcast video flag is a combination of technical specifications and federal
regulations designed to combat unauthorized redistribution of content broadcast
through digital television signals. Its adoption was prompted largely by the FCC’s
determination that broadcast transmissions be digital by December 31, 20066 (a
deadline that has since been extended by Congress to February 17, 2009). The FCC
imposed a transition to DTV in part to capitalize on the sharper images, CD-quality
sound, and wider screen angles that are available from advanced digital technologies.
However, in addition to the technological impetus, the FCC also has been motivated
by the knowledge that broadcasters, upon receiving digital spectrum allotments, must
relinquish their analog spectrum allotments to the FCC. The analog spectrum will
in turn be auctioned for other commercial and public interests. Content providers,
fearing widespread piracy that would endanger aftermarket sales (such as cable re-
broadcast and DVD sales), urged the FCC to provide for a means to protect their
assets. Meanwhile, consumer electronics and information technologists, as well as
consumer rights groups, came together in an effort to minimize the possible negative
outcome that a wide-scale regulation might have imposed.
The technical specifications behind the broadcast video flag were a compromise
measure, premised on an understanding that more restrictive approaches (such as
encrypted signals created at the source of transmission) imposed economically or
technologically infeasible conditions. The compromise came after a consortium of
content providers and consumer electronics and information technology groups came
together, forming the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG).7 The result
of this consortium was a Final Report published in June 2002, which was delivered
to Representative Billy Tauzin, then-Chairman of the House Committee on Energy
5 However, it should be noted that while duplication is fairly simple, distribution, especially
of high quality digital content, can be quite time-consuming. For example, over broadband
connections, while a music file may take a matter of minutes, television shows in standard
analog format take a number of hours. Digital programs (such as an hour of high-definition
television programming) in turn, may take upwards of 10-15 hours to successfully
6 FIFTH REPORT at 12811 ¶ 5.
7 This collaboration was open to any group or individual wishing to participate, with the
exception of the press. BPDG, Final Report of the Co-Chairs of the Broadcast Protection
Discussion Subgroup to the Copy Protection Technical Working Group, FN 4, (June 3,
BPDG/ BPDG% 20Re por t . DOC] ) .
and Commerce. The report suggested a set of “robustness and compliance” rules for
devices capable of demodulating digital television signals, which would require that
such devices protect “flagged” content from being recorded by unauthorized devices.
However, the flag itself would not require that all machines recognize it, and would
act only as a means to halt unauthorized use in machines capable of detecting it.
In November 2003, the FCC published a Report and Order that required all
digital devices capable of receiving digital broadcast over the air, and sold after July
1, 2005, to incorporate a standard content-protection technology that would recognize
the broadcast video flag and limit redistribution when the flag is recognized.8 The
FCC’s regulations apply the flag mark to all devices and receivers capable of
receiving digital content. Such devices include, but are not limited to, televisions,
computers, digital video-recorders (e.g., TiVo), and DVD players. The broadcast flag
itself is optional for broadcasters, allowing them to determine how much copy-
protection they wish to impose on their digital broadcast content.9
Because the flag does not prevent the distribution of content to non-compliant
devices, a consumer who continues to use an older television set (or theoretically, a
non-compliant demodulator) will still be able to receive and copy television programs
in non-digital form. In addition, digital television sets made prior to July 1, 2005,
will still enjoy digital content with no obstruction. In citing its support for a flag-
based approach over encryption or other means, the FCC noted concerns over “the
implementation costs and delays” associated with other solutions.10
In addition to the “compliance” requirements imposed on receiving devices, the
FCC also imposed a “robustness” requirement that forces makers of consumer
devices to ensure that circumvention is difficult. The standard of care adopted by the
FCC was that of “an ordinary user using generally available tools or equipment.”11
The FCC derives its regulatory authority over digital television from both direct
and ancillary statutory authority.
8 FCC, In the Matter of Digital Broadcast Content Protection: Report and Order and
Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, MB Docket No. 02-230, 18 F.C.C.R. 23550, 23589
(November 4, 2003) (hereinafter REPORT AND ORDER).
9 The amount of copy protection has a potential for variability. For instance, a content
provider such as C-SPAN could decide that no copy protection is necessary and would set
the flag to an off-position. Digital content would therefore be available without any
restrictions to the user. However, a broadcaster who sought to show pay-per-view digital
content might choose to set the flag to an on-position, which would disallow any form of
copying, and would potentially add a setting to restrict the amount of time a user has to
watch the program after purchase. Alternatively, a content provider may decide that
individual copying is permitted, provided a user views that copy on a secure, compliant
10 REPORT AND ORDER at 23561.
11 REPORT AND ORDER, Appendix B, at 23592.
Digital Television Implementation Under the Telecommunications
Act of 1996. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 directed the FCC to promulgate
regulations regarding the licensing of advanced television services. The act defined
“advanced television services” as “television services provided using digital or other12
advanced technology.” In prescribing such regulations, the Commission was
authorized to adopt such “technical and other requirements as may be necessary or
appropriate to assure the quality of the signal used to provide advanced television
services ... and prescribe such other regulations as may be necessary for the13
protection of the public interest, convenience, and necessity.”
Pursuant to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC has issued
regulations regarding spectrum allocation for digital television stations and has14
established a time line for the implementation of digital broadcasting by licensees.
At least one court has agreed that in regard to television digital tuners, the FCC
possessed reasonable authority to act, based on an “unambiguous command of an act
Copyright Protection. While copyright protection generally lies outside the
scope of the FCC, the Commission may exercise jurisdiction over matters not
explicitly provided for by statute if the exercise is “reasonably ancillary to the
effective performance of the Commission’s various responsibilities for the regulation
of television broadcasting.”16 The FCC has asserted that television receivers
generally, and digital television receivers specifically, fall within the scope of that
authority.17 Under the FCC Report and Order, “pursuant to the doctrine of ancillary
jurisdiction, we adopt use of the ... flag as currently defined for redistribution control
purposes and establish compliance and robustness rules for devices with
demodulators to ensure that they respond and give effect to the ... flag.” However,
the FCC initially put off deciding on permanent mechanisms for approving “content
protection and recording technologies to be used in conjunction with device outputs.”
Instead, in its Report and Order, the FCC proposed examination of such issues at a
12 47 U.S.C. § 336(i)(1).
13 47 U.S.C. §§ 336(b)(4) and (5).
14 47 C.F.R. § 73.624 (2004). See also [http://www.fcc.gov/mb/policy/dtv/] for an overview
of the FCC’s activities with regard to the implementation of DTV.
15 Consumer Electronics Association v. FCC, 347 F.3d 291, 301 (D.C. Cir. Oct. 28, 2003).
16 United States v. Southwestern Cable Co., 392 U.S. 157, 178 (1968).
17 As to ancillary jurisdiction, see id. at 178. Concerning the FCC’s ancillary authority,
Congress has given the Commission “a comprehensive mandate,” with “expansive powers,”
which has led the courts to conclude that the Communications Act of 1934 provides the
Commission with ancillary jurisdiction over matters that are related to the provision of radio
or television service, though not specifically enumerated in the act. Historically the FCC
has exercised its ancillary jurisdiction to promulgate regulations in a number of areas. See
id. at 173, 177; U.S. v. Midwest Video Corp, 406 U.S. 649 (1972). In addition to this
historic authority, the FCC relies on the definition of “wire/radio communications,” which
includes “all incidental ‘instrumentalities, facilities, apparatus and services’ that are used
for the ‘receipt, forwarding, and delivery’ of such transmissions” as a basis for its authority
over television receivers. REPORT AND ORDER at 23563.
later time and established an interim certification process for currently proposed
devices.18 In addition to the need to regulate television broadcasting, the FCC’s
action arguably protects broadcasters from any unreasonable loss in advertising
revenue that may result from unauthorized sharing of copyrighted digital television
However, the FCC was careful to note that the “scope of our decision does not
reach existing copyright law,” and that its rulemaking established a “technical
protection measure” that did not change the underlying “rights and remedies
available to copyright holders.” In addition, “this decision is not intended to alter the
defenses and penalties applicable in cases of copyright infringement, circumvention,
or other applicable laws.”19
Possible Implications of the Broadcast Video Flag
While the broadcast flag is intended to “prevent the indiscriminate redistribution
of [digital broadcast] content over the Internet or through similar means,” the goal
of the flag was not to impede a consumer’s ability to copy or use content lawfully in
the home, nor was the policy intended to “foreclose use of the Internet to send digital
broadcast content where it can be adequately protected from indiscriminate
redistribution.”20 However, current technological limitations have the potential to
hinder some activities that might normally be considered “fair use” under existing
copyright law.21 For example, a consumer who wishes to record a program to watch
at a later time, or at a different location (time-shifting and space-shifting,
respectively), might be prevented when otherwise approved technologies do not
allow for such activities or do not integrate well with one another, or with older,
“legacy” devices. In addition, future fair or reasonable uses may be precluded by
these limitations. For example, a student would be unable to e-mail herself a copy
of a project with digital video content because no current secure system exists for e-
In addition, some consumer electronics and information technology groups
contend that the licensing terms for approving new compliant devices are limiting
and may potentially stifle innovation, especially with regard to computer hardware.22
18 FCC, REPORT AND ORDER, at 23575.
19 Id. at 23555.
21 An owner of a copyright has a number of exclusive rights under the Copyright Act (17
U.S.C. § 101 et seq.), including the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute copies.
However, this right is subject to certain statutory exceptions, including the fair use exception
(17 U.S.C. § 107). This exception “permits courts to avoid rigid application of the copyright
statute when, on occasion, it would stifle the very creativity which that statute is designed
to foster.” Dr. Seuss Enters., L.P. v. Penguin Books USA, 109 F.3d 1394, 1399 (9th Cir.
22 Center for Democracy and Technology, Implications of the Broadcast Flag: A Public
Interest Primer, (December 2003), available on January 10, 2007 at
While the FCC in its Report and Order declined to establish formal guidelines for
which “objective criteria should be used to evaluate new content protection and
recording technology,” it has stated an intention to take up these issues in the future.23
Finally, consumer rights and civil liberties groups worry about the possibility
that such content protections will limit the free flow of information and hamper the
First Amendment. This concern is expressed most prominently regarding news or
public interest-based content, or works that have already entered the public domain.
Despite suggestions raised by consumer rights groups, the FCC has so far declined
to adopt language to prevent content providers from using the broadcast flag on such
programs, largely because of the “practical and legal difficulties of determining
which types of broadcast content merit protection from indiscriminate redistribution
and which do not.”24
Legal Challenges to the Broadcast Video Flag
In October of 2004, the American Library Association (ALA), Association of
Research Libraries, American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), Medical
Libraries Association, and others petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District
of Columbia Circuit to review the FCC’s Report and Order. Bringing a challenge on
behalf of “libraries, librarians and educators ... and ... television viewers and
computer users,” the petitioners, as parties to the agency proceedings, questioned the
FCC’s statutory authority to establish the broadcast flag system under the
Communications Act of 1934. On May 6, 2005, the United States Court of Appeals
for the District of Columbia Circuit granted the ALA’s petition for review and
reversed and vacated the Commission’s order requiring DTV reception equipment
to be manufactured with the capability to prevent unauthorized redistributions of
In American Library Association v. Federal Communications Commission, the
court of appeals determined that the FCC lacked the authority “to regulate apparatus
that can receive television broadcasts when those apparatus are not engaged in the
process of receiving a broadcast transmission.”26 The court noted that in adopting
the broadcast flag rules, the Commission “cited no specific statutory provision giving
[it] authority to regulate consumers’ use of television receiver apparatus after the
completion of the broadcast transmission.”27 The Commission’s reliance on its
ancillary jurisdiction under Title I of the Communications Act of 1934 was rejected
by the court. The court found that although the jurisdictional grant under Title I
plainly encompasses the regulation of apparatus that can receive television broadcast
23 REPORT AND ORDER at 23578.
24 Id. at 23568-23569 (internal citation omitted).
25 406 F.3d 689 (D.C. Cir. 2005).
26 Id. at 691.
content, the Commission’s regulatory authority does not extend beyond the actual
receipt of such content by the apparatus in question. The court’s decision was limited
to resolving whether the Commission had the authority to impose the broadcast flag
requirements; it did not address the imposition of the broadcast flag requirements in
terms of copyright law.
Broadcast Video Flag Legislation Introduced in
the 109th Congress
In response to the American Library Association decision, two bills were
introduced in the 109th Congress that would have expressly granted statutory
authority to the FCC under the Communications Act of 1934 to implement the FCC’s
Report and Order In the Matter of Digital Broadcast Content Protection. Theseth
legislative proposals represent approaches that may be taken in the 110 Congress
for authorizing a broadcast video flag system. The Digital Content Protection Actth
of 2006 was introduced by Senator Ted Stevens in the 109 Congress as part of two
bills, S. 2686 and H.R. 5252 (as reported in the Senate).28
Section 452 of S. 2686, as introduced, would have required the FCC to modify
its Report and Order to permit the following transmissions:
!short excerpts of broadcast digital television content over the
!broadcast digital television content over a home network or other
localized network accessible to a limited number of devices
connected to such network, and
!redistribution of news and public affairs programming (not including
sports) in which the primary commercial value depends on
timeliness, as determined by the broadcaster or broadcasting
The Senate version of H.R. 5252 would have prohibited television broadcast
stations from using the broadcast video flag “to limit the redistribution of news and
public affairs programming the primary commercial value of which depends on
timeliness.” However, the bill expressly allowed each broadcaster or broadcasting
network to make the determination as to whether the primary commercial value of
a particular news program depends on timeliness. The bill also authorized the FCC
to “review any such determination by a broadcaster or broadcasting network if it
receives bona fide complaints alleging, or otherwise has reason to believe, that
particular broadcast digital television content has violated” this limitation concerning
timeliness and commercial value.
28 H.R. 5252, the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement (COPE) Act
of 2006, was passed by the House and was then amended in the nature of a substitute by the
Senate Commerce Committee, which struck everything after the enacting clause and inserted
the language of S. 2686. The House-passed version of H.R. 5252 did not contain a video
Hearings on the broadcast flag held by the 109th Congress revealed that
educators and librarians who use digital materials in education are concerned that a
broadcast video flag regime could frustrate the utilization of digital television in
distance education.29 Both bills contained provisions that sought to preserve this
statutory right under the Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization
(TEACH) Act of 2002:30
!S. 2686 required the FCC’s video flag regulation to “permit
government bodies or accredited nonprofit educational institutions
to use copyrighted work in distance education courses pursuant to”
the TEACH Act and the amendments made by that Act.31
!H.R. 5252, as reported in the Senate, contained a provision that
would have directed the FCC to, within 30 days of enactment of the
Act, initiate proceedings “for the approval of digital output
protection technologies and recording methods for use in the course
of distance learning activities.”32
In addition, the Senate version of H.R. 5252 clarified that nothing in the bill
shall “be construed to affect rights, remedies, limitations, or defenses to copyright
infringement, including fair use,” under the Copyright Act. S. 2686 did not contain
a similar provision with regard to the broadcast video flag.33
29 The Broadcast and Audio Flag: Hearing Before the Sen. Comm. on Commerce, Science,
and Transportation, 109th Cong., 2nd Sess. (2006) (statement of Jonathan Band, counsel of
the American Library Association), at 1-5, available on January 10, 2007 at
30 For more information on the TEACH Act, see CRS Report RL33516, Copyright
Exemptions for Distance Education: 17 U.S.C. 110(2), the Technology, Education, and
Copyright Harmonization Act of 2002, by Jared A. Huber, Brian T. Yeh, and Robin Jeweler.
31 Section 452 of S. 2686 (as introduced), 109th Cong., 2d. Sess. (2006).
32 Section 452 of H.R. 5252 (reported in the Senate), 109th Cong., 2d Sess. (2006).
33 However, S. 2686 would have established a Digital Audio Review Board to draft a
proposed regulation governing the use of an “audio” flag for digital audio broadcasts; such
a regulation was to be “consistent with fair use principles.”