The task of sorting out copyrights in a digital world continues to befuddle participants and observers.

The ongoing puzzlement suggests that the road to pervasive digital television broadcasts, already expected to be a slow one, has an intimidating number of potholes left to fill. Notably, the passions arising over copyright and usage issues related to digital broadcasts and other new media appear increasingly to challenge media companies' efforts to wrest full value from the movies and music they control.

Although the bottom-line impact on conglomerates such as

News Corp.

(NWS) - Get Report

,

AOL Time Warner

(AOL)

and

Disney

(DIS) - Get Report

is still too early to tell, the confusion points to continuing uncertainties about the value of new revenue streams for the big media firms, or the threats to revenue posed by new technology.

Many Letters

The latest skirmish in the copyright battle -- hotly contested yet inconclusive -- arises from the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group, an industry group primarily comprising content companies and consumer electronics manufacturers. The group came together last fall in an effort to develop standards to prevent "unauthorized redistribution" of "digital terrestrial broadcast content."

In plainer English, participants were hoping to come up with a way to prevent TV watchers from, say, taking their local CBS station's commercial-free broadcast of

Schindler's List

, making a high-quality digital copy and posting it on a Web site for anyone to download for free.

Whether this is what the BPDG ended up doing when it issued its report Tuesday is up for debate. According to the

San Jose Mercury News

, "a powerful alliance of technology and entertainment companies agreed Tuesday to a standard for encrypting digital television broadcasts." But according to

The New York Times

, "a coalition of technology and consumer electronics companies ... crumbled in a cross-industry power struggle."

One of the group's co-chairs hadn't returned a call for comment by deadline.

What It Means

Whatever it all means, the opposition to establishing technology that restricts consumers' personal use of creative works such as music and movies faces an increasingly vocal opposition. Part of that opposition is Excite co-founder Joe Kraus, now involved with DigitalConsumer.org, a new group devoted to preserving what it sees as incursions on consumers' traditional fair-use rights of copyrighted products, such as the ability to play an audio compact disc on on a computer's CD-ROM drive.

In the name of preventing piracy, the general BPDG strategy of preventing Internet transmission of duplicated over-the-air programming, he says, will prevent consumers from legitimate activities such as emailing one another fragments of TV shows or including such excerpts in critical multimedia works.

The BPDG's effort, says Kraus, is part of the content industry's "systematic campaign to eliminate fair-use rights among consumers and to eliminate the historical balance established between copyright holders and citizens in the copyright statute."

In addition to being wrong, says Kraus, the campaign is bad business, he suggests. Ostensibly, greater restrictions on usage and copying will prevent piracy and require consumers to pay for usage they've previously enjoyed for free. But, he says, professional, large-scale pirates will, as they have previously, find ways to evade copy protection. Restrictions built into hardware will add costs to new consumer electronics devices while limiting their capabilities. And increasing restrictions on use, he says, will drive consumers away.

"When you walk into a store, and the owner frisks you," Kraus asks, "how many times are you going to go into that store? ... When you treat your consumers like potential criminals, that always comes back to haunt you."

Another critic of both the procedures and the outcome of the BPDG is Tom Patton, vice president, government relations of Philips Electronics, the U.S. subsidiary of Royal Philips Electronics of the Netherlands.

"The report that was issued," says Patton, "shows clearly that there is a wide area of disagreement and that much work is required to advance what is otherwise a very important goal."

The proposal pushed by a group of companies in the BPDG, says Patton, is a costly solution that won't work with equipment currently in the home, and does indeed restrict consumers' fair use rights.

The intention of the BPDG, says Patton, was to come up with a widely accepted solution to the problem of unauthorized retransmission of digital broadcasts, then take that solution to Capitol Hill to get the backing of law.

"It would be nice if there were a broad industry consensus on a technological solution to the broadcast issue," says Patton. "This isn't it."