Curbing broadcast signal piracy

Curbing broadcast signal piracy

The Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization (Wipo) has for long been grappling with the issue of signal piracy and the rights of broadcasting organizations to address it. Since 1998, in 20 consecutive sessions, Wipo’s standing committee on copyright and related rights (SCCR) has discussed this dilemma. In 2006, SCCR came up with a draft basic proposal treaty on the protection of broadcasting organizations and on providing a stable legal framework for their activities against piracy.

Signal piracy is the outcome of a gap in the market, wherein some consumers are unable to either afford or access broadcast content. Content exclusivity and competition, such as in the case of sports events, are other grounds for such piracy. Of course, policy and regulatory barriers, such as censorship or weak legal protection for broadcasters, are also critical in its prevalence.

Worldwide, as media access, nature and the level of media consumption vary widely, signal piracy—or the theft of broadcast signals—plays out differently in different forms, according to socio-economic settings and dispersal of technologies among people. For example, illegal TV access in poor African countries is mostly limited to group or community viewing, a stage India went through in the early 1990s at the introductory stage of private television. But today, the scenario in India is drastically different. With a steep reduction in access barriers—especially cost—almost 800 million people now spend less than Rs20 a day on watching television.

The purpose of the proposed treaty is to protect, on a global forum, traditional broadcasting organizations against the theft of their signals transmitted across national borders. Its focus is on the “anti-piracy" function, and against signal theft, but it also provides protection against competitors, unfair exploitation of the signal.

Though protection is currently granted under several international treaties, broadcasters deem them insufficient in the light of technological advancements and the new digital environment. To compete in today’s world, broadcasters demand proper means to protect and build on their investment, enabling them to decide when and how they wish to authorize or prohibit use by others of their signals in markets.

The discussion on the proposed treaty has progressed slowly, primarily because of its highly technical nature and the great divergences in the treatment of broadcasting organizations in different national legal systems. The delay has also been due to growing awareness of the treaty’s potential unintended consequences. Consumer groups and other stakeholders have brought to the discussion concerns about its impact on access to information, freedom of expression and cultural diversity, and the stifling of innovation in the rapidly changing technological and commercial media environment.

As party to the treaty, India has been active in most of these discussions and has been a strong voice representing the developing countries. At a time when the implications of the treaty and the protection it offered were not fully understood, Indian representatives requested an in-depth study of the signal theft issues in the prevalent global broadcast scenario, and the possible repercussions of such a treaty.

In response, Wipo released three parts of the study titled Study on the Socioeconomic Dimension of the Unauthorized Use of Signals (2009-10), providing an overview of possible effects and implications of the treaty. The reports map the technological developments in the broadcast sector and the wide variations among member states in terms of this technology. They elaborate on unauthorized access to broadcast content along with its ramifications. And they comment on the nature of the broadcast sector—its rampant commercialization and various stages of maturity in terms of business standards. The third report in this study, in particular, attempts to capture the socio-economic effects of the proposed treaty on stakeholders. It also suggests looking at alternative ways of addressing signal piracy instead of providing more rights to the broadcasters, as the implications of such rights could not be fully quantified.

At its upcoming November session, SCCR is expected to finally decide on whether giving such rights to broadcasting organizations is warranted. It is expected that the treaty will be pushed through, with a few amendments and built-in exceptions that will help enable developing countries to safeguard public interest issues such as access to information. However, these amendments will be dependent on the systems that individual countries have in place to address broadcasting sector issues.

We can imagine the legal confusions and local implementation chaos that such a treaty could cause in countries like India. Then, there are enforcement difficulties in functioning democracies, where the majority of voters are poor and their resentment against exclusive content has to be faced by elected governments. For example, in enforcing conditional access system (CAS) in India, Union and state governments had to retreat when faced with mounting public opposition. Such issues were flagged in the Wipo meetings held in Delhi in July, which were attended by government officials from 16 countries of the Asia-Pacific region.

Finally, it is to be hoped that the member countries at the next SCCR session will find the balance between granting increased protection to certain segments of the broadcasting media (to protect their commercial interests), and safeguarding the larger public interest in access and use of broadcast content.

PN Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.

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