Microsoft Patent Will Have Your TV Watching You

A creepy Microsoft patent recently published by the US Patent Office aims to use the software giant’s Kinect technology to peer into your living room for the purpose of reporting content-license violations.

Ominously titled “Content Distribution Regulation by Viewing User,” the patent envisions a future license regime in which viewers would pay for streaming content according to how many people would watch it.  A night on the couch watching a rom-com with your significant other would thus cost you less than hosting a crowded viewing party for the season finale of the latest smash-hit zombie/vampire show.   But if you paid for an intimate twosome and decided instead to host a dozen of your closest friends, your TV would know — and alert the proper authorities:

The technology, briefly described, is a content presentation system and method allowing content providers to regulate the presentation of content on a per-user-view basis. Content is distributed to consuming devices, such as televisions, set-top boxes and digital displays, with an associated license option on the number of individual consumers or viewers allowed to consume the content…  The users consuming the content on a display device are monitored so that if the number of user-views licensed is exceeded, remedial action may be taken.

One hopes that such “remedial action” would entail simply an additional charge, rather than, say, a seizure-inducing blast of strobe lights from the screen, or a home invasion by commandos from the Motion Picture Association of America.  But the sense of intrusion such technology could cause may not feel much different.

The patent speculates that the viewing license could be limited by specifying viewer age, or even “views tied to user identities,” implying that the surveillance capabilities of Microsoft’s version of Orwell’s telescreens would go beyond simply counting heads.

Aside from the distinct creep factor of Disney counting the number of children in your living room, or Cinemax logging your identity every time you settle in for some late-night soft-core, there’s obviously the worry about mission creep.  It goes without saying that the moment such a draconian licensing scheme goes live it will be hacked beyond recognition by Pirate Nation.  And once these monitoring capabilities are deployed as standard gear in set-top boxes and consoles across the nation and plugged into the Internet, the scope for mischief is immense.

Regardless of how imminent or feasible such a license enforcement regime may be, this patent does highlight a very current issue just dawning on many digital consumers — that when you rent, or even “buy” digital content, you’re only really purchasing permission to use that content under conditions set by the copyright holder.   Kindle owners don’t really “own” the ebooks they’ve “bought,” and your right to possess the MP3s you “purchased” from iTunes dies with you.

As absurd as it may sound, it would be perfectly legal for a content provider to bury in their user agreements all sorts of restrictions on how you are permitted the use the movies, ebooks and music that you “buy,” stream or rent.  And given the scramble to restore profits squeezed by the digital revolution, you can bet rights-holders and content providers would be thrilled to implement any sort of licensing scheme that could help them charge a few cents more per use.

The only thing that’s holding them back is the lack of an adequate enforcement mechanism — and Microsoft has an idea for that.

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