ReplayTV Users Sue to Skip Commercials

They want their ReplayTV.

Owners of ReplayTV Digital Video Recorders have struck back at media empires with a lawsuit that asserts they can zap commercials and swap recorded programs over the Internet without being sued for copyright infringement.

With the help of online free speech group Electronic Frontier Foundation, five owners of SONICblue’s Replay TV 4000 DVRs filed suit against major media companies such as AOL Time Warner and NBC Thursday.

In a kind of preemptive legal strike, the suit is asking a federal court in Los Angeles to declare that the DVRs are legal to use under existing copyright law. The EEF said the suit was also inspired by a copyright suit brought against ReplayTV as well as media companies’ claims that ReplayTV helps aid “theft”.

The case highlights a widening front in the war between companies making technology that manipulates and transports digital media, and the entertainment industry that produces and profits from the content. Now, the latest legal maneuver is a signal that the customers who pay to use and consume the media want their say too.

The complaint says that in prior legal actions brought by the television and movie companies, owners of the ReplayTV4000 unit have been accused of “theft” of copyrighted materials because of the unit’s abilities to zap commercials, “time shift” by recording programs while watching others, and send the programs digitally to other users.

“These accusations chill Plaintiffs’ fair use rights and adversely impact their First Amendment rights,” according to the complaint, which names media groups such as Turner Broadcasting System, Disney Enterprises, Paramount Pictures, Corporation, NBC, Showtime Networks, and Viacom International, CBS Worldwide, and AOL Time Warner Entertainment and its Home Box Office unit.

“The studios are using their copyrights as an excuse to control what individuals do with their own property in the privacy of their own homes,” said EFF Intellectual Property attorney Robin Gross.

The EFF complaint charges that instead of helping innovation and providing customers with new media experiences, “Hollywood intends to outlaw a new and promising technology” and called the trend “just as alarming as the Betamax case of the 1980s when Hollywood tried to ban VCRs.”

SONICblue, which makes the ReplayTV products, was ordered by a federal judge last month to track the individual viewing habits of its ReplayTV 4000 customers. The order, which was later reversed, directed SONICblue to pinpoint the frequency with which movie and television shows are recorded on the DVRs and then swapped over the Internet.

SONICblue’s ReplayTV 4000 has been the subject of a series of lawsuits filed on behalf of 28 television and movie studios claiming that the ReplayTV 4000, SONICblue’s most popular digital video recorder to date, enables copyright infringement by allowing users to send files via a ‘Send Show’ feature over the Internet — redistributing entertainment content without permission from copyright holders.

The Motion Picture Association of America, meanwhile, called the lawsuit a “publicity stunt” and said the suit distorts the nature of the entertainment industry’s existing case against SONICblue and ReplayTV. The MPAA statement also said that consumers looking to join the argument should take their complaint to the makers of the device.

The suit also names ReplayTV, Inc. and SONICblue.

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