Copyright Office Urges FCC To Reconsider Set-Top Plans

The US Copyright Office is urging the Federal Communications Commission to rethink its proposal to unlock set-top boxes so any company can build them.

Following the cable industry’s lead, USCO Director Maria Pallante recently penned a letter suggesting the FCC “refine its approach” to avoid conflicts with copyright law and policy.

The letter comes after the FCC earlier this year voted to “unlock the box,” hoping to spur innovation, competition, and choice by allowing anyone—from Apple to Netflix—to create devices or services that compete with traditional set-top boxes.

“The challenge here is determining how the FCC can meet its objective without impairing the rights of creators and copyright owners under the Copyright Act,” Pallante wrote.

In 1976, the Supreme Court established the latest version of the Copyright Act, which grants authors of trademarked content exclusive rights to “do and to authorize” the reproduction, distribution, public performance, and public display of their work.

The Office’s principal reservation, according to Pallante, is that the rule could “interfere with copyright owners’ rights to license their works … and restrict their ability to impose reasonable conditions on the use of those works through the private negotiations that are the hallmark of the vibrant and dynamic MVPD [multichannel video programming distributors] marketplace.”

According to the FCC, 99 percent of US consumers lease a set-top box from their pay TV provider, in large part because of outdated government regulations. And while the price of computers, TVs, and mobile phones has dropped 90 percent in two decades, the cost of set-top boxes has risen 185 percent since 1994.

The new rules, however, would open TV data—information about programming, entitlements, and delivery—to innovators so they can create new hardware or software that consumers can buy instead of a traditional box.

If passed, the FCC’s plan would allow cable customers to stick with their existing setup, while offering another option for those looking for a competitive device to access content to which they subscribe.

Stressing that the FCC requested its advice on the proposal, the USCO urged that the agency to come up with a revised plan—one that respects creators and their work.

“Because regulatory actions that undermine such arrangements would be inconsistent with the rights granted under the Copyright Act, and to some degree … the authority of Congress to decide whether and when limitations on these rights should apply,” Pallante said.

Unlike USCO, the cable industry is not at all interested in the Commission’s proposal. Instead, industry lobbyists over the summer offered another solution: ditch set-top boxes in favor of apps that let TV fans watch shows anywhere.

Whichever plan is adopted, it could be good for consumers, since the industry and FCC say their goals are to eliminate the roughly $230 a year that households pay for set-top boxes.

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