Set-top boxes

Judging by the congressional reaction to the Federal Communications Commission’s set-top box proposal, the agency may want to either clarify or greatly expand upon the copyright-related parts of its push to let third parties sell the boxes to cable and satellite subscribers.

If it does, the agency will probably free up a little space in its mailbox.

A bipartisan coalition of 23 lawmakers led by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) wrote a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler April 22 urging him to alter the set-top box proposal so that third parties offering their own products would have to strike up licensing deals directly with content providers. The congressmen and their colleagues worried that the commission’s proposal could hurt copyright holders.

A week later, Democrats Adam B. Schiff and Tony Cardenas of California, along with Gene Green of Texas, wrote in an April 29 letter to fellow lawmakers that the proposal would allow third parties to “skirt existing, laboriously negotiated licensing agreements,” raising “significant legal issues, as well as issues of fairness.” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) and the panel’s ranking member, John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said in their own April 29 letter that they are concerned the proposal could pave the way for set-top boxes that include pirated content alongside legitimate cable, through an app along the lines of notorious hybrid BitTorrent client/video streamer Popcorn Time.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) told reporters after a House Democratic caucus meeting April 28 that he too worries the proposal could somehow facilitate piracy.

“Movies and television and video as produced by a person, they need to be rewarded for that,” Crowley said, adding he “would like to see many advancements in terms of cable television and opportunity, but there are legitimate issues that we need to be concerned about.”

Before lawmakers started to weigh in, though, FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart told Bloomberg BNA that many of the copyright concerns swirling around the agency’s proposal misconstrue what it is trying to do. According to Hart, the proposal won’t affect the licensing agreements (or payments thereunder) in place between cable companies and copyright holders, nor will it affect the Copyright Office’s ability to enforce copyright law. The commission’s proposal would require third parties to abide by the same licensing terms cable companies have to abide by, Hart said, and it wouldn’t allow anyone to freely begin selling an otherwise illegal device.

The FCC certainly has its hands full in trying to move the proposal along. But it looks like the agency might benefit from clearing copyright questions up with lawmakers first.