Hollywood takes on PVRs

Content providers sue ReplayTV, claiming copyright violation

It was only a question of time before the Hollywood community would take action against PVRs that provide the means to automatically skip commercials. With the debut of the ReplayTV 4000 PVR due this month, that time is now.

Paramount Pictures, Disney Enterprises, NBC, NBC Studios, Showtime, the UPN network, ABC, Viacom, and CBS filed a lawsuit against ReplayTV and its parent company, Sonicblue, in U.S. District Court, Central District of California, last week. The lawsuit requests relief against an "unlawful plan by defendants to arm their customers with ... unprecedented new tools for violating plaintiff's copyright interests in the programming they supply to various television distribution services."

In a joint statement, Disney, NBC and Viacom said, "In order to protect our copyrighted content and all whose livelihoods are depending on it, we are seeking preliminary and permanent relief."

A visit to the ReplayTV Web site and a run through the demo makes clear why broadcasters may feel threatened. The plaintiffs have two major complaints with the ReplayTV 4000, which still hasn't shipped. One is the AutoSkip feature that allows viewers to set up the recorder to delete all commercials in all future playback.

Viewers click an on-screen icon called "skip commercials" when watching a program with advertisements. "In essence, the defendants are seeking to profit from the sale of features that are calculated to disrupt the ability of copyright owners to market their works for telecast by free, over-the-air television, by basic and premium subscription services, and by pay-per-view," the lawsuit states.

The Consumer Electronics Association says it will be watching the suit closely because it sees the action as a direct attack on consumers' fair-use rights to record free over-the-air broadcasting for later viewing.

"The knee-jerk reaction of the content community to every new technology is to litigate instead of looking for ways to develop business models that take advantage of the new technology," says Jeff Joseph, spokesman for CEA. "We're certainly concerned about giving Hollywood the ability to comment on specific functions of consumer electronics devices. Today it's commercial skip, tomorrow it's something else."

Another feature that has content owners and distributors nervous is called "Send Show." It allows a user to distribute a recorded program to third parties via broadband connection. "Nothing in the Copyright Act gives defendants or their customers any right to make, for distribution to third parties, digital copies of Will & Grace
or Rugrats, much less entire theatrical motion pictures appearing on television," plaintiffs state in the filing. "These practices violate not only the Copyright Act but also the Federal Communications Act and California Law."