Potentially accelerating the market for retail set-tops, three box manufacturers have signed CableLabs' controversial POD-Host Interface License Agreement (PHILA), a key copyright protection element for set-tops based on the OpenCable specification.

In a document filed with the Federal Communications Commission, CableLabs said Pace Micro Technology plc signed the agreement on Dec. 22, 2001. Motorola Broadband Communications Sector and Scientific-Atlanta Inc. put pen to paper a bit earlier in 2001, CableLabs said.

The PHILA license gives vendors access to a proprietary technique that provides copy protection for the digital link between an OpenCable point-of-deployment (POD) card and the host equipment. More specifically, PHILA metes out the rescrambling technology secrets behind DFAST (Dynamic Feedback Arrangement Scrambling Technique), which Motorola Inc. invented and provided to CableLabs on a royalty-free basis.

Among its many provisions, PHILA includes copyright capabilities for on-board personal video recorders and the recording of high-definition programs.

That provision would give content providers and operators the ability to add restrictions such as "copy once," "copy no more" and "copy never," meaning some programming could be automatically "obliterated" or erased from a set-top's internal PVR after an amount of time set by the copyright holder's conditions. However, a PVR would still be permitted to record "copy never" programming on a temporary basis so that viewers could pause and rewind shows they are watching.

For high-definition television, PHILA requires that the resolution of the signal be lowered to standard definition until a copy-protected, digital link is later established.

Ideally, OpenCable host vendors would be required to sign the license and pay for the access to DFAST before CableLabs would hand over the technology's encryption information.

PHILA has not proceeded without scrutiny from studios, programming networks and consumer-electronics manufacturers. Movie studios, for instance, have been strongly in favor of copyright measures in order to protect the residual value of high-value content such as first-run films in digital format.

CE trade groups have raised issues with the PHILA license, claiming that too much copyright protection would make retail set-tops unattractive to consumers.

While the Consumer Electronics Association has noted pleasure in seeing CableLabs release the spec for the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP) set-top middleware, the organization has urged the FCC to publish the PHILA license for public comment.