Digital TV file-sharing goes to court -- HDTV pirating is causing MP3-like legal controversy

Hollywood’s Metallica-like quest to squelch online swapping of movies and TV shows has just hit a snag. But it will take more than a court ruling to knock out studios and networks intent on protecting their wares: This was merely the first battle in what’s shaping up to be a war as bitter as the one still being waged by the music industry against illegal file-sharing.

At issue: programs broadcast in high-definition television, or HDTV. Like MP3, HDTV is a digital format, which means near-pristine copies of movies and TV shows can easily be reproduced and distributed. (Not everyone is afraid of sharing. Last season, at Dave Chappelle’s insistence, clips from Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show were made available for download. The result? High ratings and record-breaking DVD sales from a fan base that grew on the Internet.)

Two years ago, the FCC, under pressure from networks and studios, mandated that any HDTV device (including TV sets and computers) sold after July 1, 2005, be outfitted with a government-approved tuner that would recognize a ”broadcast flag” — a bit of digital data embedded in a program that would, in effect, prevent home viewers from swapping HDTV files.

Howls of protest greeted the flag announcement. A coalition of public-interest groups and librarians filed suit, arguing that the FCC lacked the authority to enforce the measure. The court agreed and on May 6 ruled against the FCC and Motion Picture Association of America, which joined the FCC in the lawsuit. The MPAA will likely take its case to Congress — which has the power to bring the gavel down on copying. Ahoy, ye video pirates: Get the goods while they last.