Back in January the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) drew attention to a consumer-unfriendly situation in the United States which forces millions of cable TV viewers to access content through devices offered by their providers.
According to the FCC, 99% of pay-TV subscribers are chained to set-top boxes that are supplied at inflated rates. On average, the average American household pays $231 in rental fees – a cool $20 billion a year for all U.S. consumers.
To reduce the effects of this problem the FCC approved a proposal that would allow consumers to swap expensive cable boxes for other devices and apps, a change that would boost competition and deliver a blow to companies such as Comcast who would suddenly be open to competition from companies such as Alphabet/Google.
Last month President Barack Obama came out in favor of the plan but that was soon followed by an opinion from the MPAA who warned that opening up the set-top box market to third party vendors would cause a piracy problem.
“No matter what you think about the pay-TV set-top box market, the FCC may not promote alternatives by taking the intellectual property of the content industry and giving it to some members of the technology industry, or by making it easier for pirate site operators to build a black market business by stealing that content,” the MPAA warned.
Part of the MPAA’s concerns center around the likelihood that new boxes will offer ‘cross-platform searches’, i.e mixing regular pay-TV content with that offered via the Internet. In other words, authorized premium content might potentially appear alongside pirate content in set-top box menus.
Those warnings appear to have resonated with two influential lawmakers who have written to FCC chief Tom Wheeler with their concerns.
Interestingly, the letter penned by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Congress’s longest-serving current member John Conyers doesn’t merely reference piracy in general – they have a specific concern in mind.
“As Members of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees our nation’s copyright laws, we recognize the harm to the American economy caused by the theft of copyrighted works,” the Congressmen begin.
“Creators have shared concerns that under the FCC’s proposed rule, future set-top boxes or their replacements could purposely designed to distribute pirated content obtained from sources that primarily offer stolen content.”
And the number one concern?
“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,” they warn.
“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, or otherwise lead to the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted works.”
At this point it’s far from clear what future set-top boxes and their software equivalents will look like but it is certainly conceivable that opening up such platforms to third-party vendors could potentially provide easier access to unauthorized content.
That being said, piracy-enabled set-top devices costing just a few dollars are already installed globally in millions of homes, a situation that is only likely to worsen in the months and years to come. Indeed, anyone with an Android phone or tablet already has their own nascent ‘piracy-enabled set-top box” complete with Popcorn Time functionality if they want it.
Public comment on the FCC’s proposals are open until May 23, so expect more pushback from copyright holders and their allies in the meantime.