BY CORY DOCTOROW
Selectable Output Control
Chances are, you haven’t heard of “selectable
output control” (SOC), a proposed digital TV
technology that would allow broadcasters
to tag their content with a list of devices that are
allowed to play it. That’s because it’s an insane idea.
Picture this: you power up your home theater, a
complex network of game consoles, A/V switchers,
cable boxes, PVRs, DVD players, 5. 1 speakers, amps,
a home theater PC, and a monitor or projector.
After locating the correct remote, you start surfing
through channels. All good. But when you hit MTV,
the gorgeous, perfectly balanced sound stops.
Why? Because MTV doesn’t want you digitizing
the songs that accompany its music videos, so it
sends a digital “flag” that disallows high-end audio
on equipment that doesn’t contains digital rights
management (DRM). Your beautiful hand-built tube
amp certainly isn’t compatible, so if you want sound
while watching MTV, you’ve got to turn on the tiny
internal speakers that came with your TV.
You surf on up the dial (get up again and turn off
the internal speakers), and flip to HBO. Your screen
goes dark. That’s because HBO is showing a movie
that has been flagged as “no analog” — which
means your beautiful 42" plasma display won’t
work because you connected it via the composite
analog video cables coming off the back of your
A/V switcher, rather than via the DRM-locked
To watch the movie, you’ll need to move the
entire shelving unit (remember to take down the
family photos first, doofus, otherwise you risk shattering the glass if they tip over), disconnect the
analog cables, dig around in the garage to find the
HDMI cable that came with the TV (or was it the
cable box?), and rewire your set.
One more channel up the dial and the screen
goes dark again. Google around for a while, and you
discover that some kid in the Ukraine published a
class break last month for HDCP, the anti-copying
crap in HDMI, that makes it possible to record HDCP
content using “unauthorized” technology. So here
on Showtime, they’ve restricted HDCP as well as
analog. You’re going to need DVI for this one. You
grab a little Maglite and peer hopefully at the inputs
14 Make: Volume
The dead hand of copyright is
in the guts of your inventions.
on the plasma. No DVI. Now what? Buy a new TV?
This is where SOC crosses the line from totally
objectionable to totally insane. With SOC, it doesn’t
matter if you’re careful to buy only “approved”
technologies and set them up in the “approved”
manner. Because no matter how you set your
stuff up today, the signal can be altered to prohibit
access tomorrow, if someone, somewhere, figures
out how to do something naughty with a device
you have the misfortune of owning.
You haven’t heard of SOC because, in 2003,
the FCC told broadcasters and cable operators
that they weren’t allowed to use it. But, like a bad
Hollywood sequel, it’s back. The Motion Picture
Association of America has petitioned the FCC for
the right to turn on SOC for new-release movies.
It promises it won’t use SOC for other purposes,
but you can bet its use will expand and expand.
SOC isn’t just a cable proposal, it’s an entire
philosophy that’s the antithesis of making. It’s a
philosophy that says that the dead hand of the
original manufacturer will be an immortal presence
in every device you own, yanking out the wires that
it objects to, turning the dials to suit its needs. If
you’ve ever done something with a device that the
manufacturer didn’t intend (or wouldn’t like), you
can appreciate how bad an idea this is.
Copyright has its place. I think that it’s totally legit
to propose that someone who makes a creative
work should be allowed to control the circumstances
under which companies can sell copies of it. But
since when does copyright give a creator the right
to tell you which wires to plug into your TV?
» The Electronic Frontier Foundation — which
fought SOC in 2003 — is fighting it again, and you
can help out at
Cory Doctorow lives in London, writes science fiction novels,
co-edits Boing Boing, and fights for digital freedom.