Networks Seek to Quash ReplayTV

The nation’s largest broadcast networks are seeking to quash television ad blocking before it goes mainstream, filing a suit against SONICblue, maker of the ReplayTV.

The complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court of California by the broadcast, network and television production units of Viacom, General Electric, and the Walt Disney Co. alleges copyright infringement, unfair business practices and violations of sections of the Federal Communications Act.

Additionally, Viacom, Disney and GE (which own CBS, ABC and NBC, respectively) ask in the suit for an injunction against SONICblue’s manufacturing of the ReplayTV 4000 — the latest version of the company’s digital video recording device, features of which include an automatic “commercial skip” feature.

“This unlawful activity harms the market potential for and value of plaintiffs’ copyrighted works because commercial advertising is a crucial (and often the sole) means by which plaintiffs receive payment for such programming,” reads the suit, which also charges SONICblue with deliberately arming “customers with — and continuously assist[ing] them in using — unprecedented new tools for violating plaintiffs’ copyright interests.”

But Santa Clara, Calif.-based SONICblue, naturally, sees the situation quite differently. Executives, who said they hadn’t formally been served with the suit by press time, pointed to VCR systems currently being marketed by the likes of Sony, Panasonic, and others as evidence that the networks are unfairly singling out ReplayTV.

“We put in the same commercial skip technology that’s been available in VCRs for years … and is sold by most major consumer electronics companies,” said SONICblue chief technical officer Andrew Wolfe. “Somehow, the industry seems to think it’s different on a [digital video recorder] than on a VCR, but we don’t understand why or how. Certainly, we haven’t created any new capabilities here.”

The suit also complains about the device’s ability to make perfect digital copies of the networks’ copyrighted programs, and, using its “Send Show” feature, distribute them to others via a broadband Internet connection.

“In order to protect our copyrighted content and all whose livelihoods are dependent on it, we are seeking preliminary and permanent relief,” the companies said in a joint statement.

The thorny issue of copying and distributing televised programs — and electronics manufacturers’ role in those practices — is an old one. In 1984, the Supreme Court threw out a similar suit against Sony Corp. and its Betamax recorder, a ruling that allowed consumers some rights (called “fair use”) to videotape programs. Most recently, Napster invoked “fair use” in its defense of its peer-to-peer file-sharing application.

As with videotapes, Wolfe said the company anticipates that consumers would use the ReplayTV technology responsibly — and legally.

“We expect people to follow laws on copyrighted material — that’s the way ‘fair use’ has always worked,” he said. “We expect users to not email material that’s protected by copyrights. There’s lots of material that’s available that would be okay to email — videos of your kids, your school board meeting being broadcast on a public access channel, for instance. We’re not telling customers what to do.”

But the plaintiffs allege SONICblue’s practices are different — and worse — than predecessors’, since the technology is more powerful, and because the features in question are “calculated to disrupt the ability of copyright owners to market their works.”

According to the plaintiffs, those activities actually hurt consumers, as well as television producers.

“The Replay 4000 deprives copyright owners of the means by which they are paid for their creative content and thus reduces their incentive to create programming and make it available to the public,” the companies said.

Wolfe said the networks’ allegations were wildly off-base, and suggested that SONICblue’s critics were misclassifing the product.

“The people who are suing us are trying to position it based on a few small features,” he said. “But the most exciting features of the ReplayTV 4000 are that it has the best video quality, the most ways to output video from the box, and the most storage of any video recorder … And it has broadband and network capabilities.”

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