Properties on Web the spoils of war

January 24, 2000|By Mike Himowitz

It's almost midnight, and David Letterman and Bruce Willis are doing their talk show schtick -- I think the conversation has something to do with the actor's sneakers, but it's hard to be sure.

That's because the picture isn't very big, and it's pretty grainy. The sound is choppy, too. In fact, the only thing that makes this show even remotely worth watching is that it's playing in a corner of my computer screen -- delivered via the Internet.

Big deal, you say. You know it's possible to send video over the World Wide Web. But this isn't just any video. It's a regular network broadcast, and if I point my browser to www.iCrave TV.com, I can tune in ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and a handful of others.

Now you'd think these broadcasters would welcome Web viewers like me. Their traditional audience is being nibbled away by cable, and the fact that I'm staring at a computer tonight -- along with umpteen million other people in umpteen million homes -- normally means that I'm not watching their shows and the commercials their advertisers pay for.

But they don't like it one bit. They don't like it so much that three of the broadcasters and 10 movie companies have filed a copyright infringement suit against the Canadian company that set up shop under the iCraveTV banner two months ago.

A battalion of lawyers will camp around

ka0 this battlefield for years. In fact, if you peer out into cyberspace, you'll see entire armies of lawyers armed with injunctions, cease-and-desist orders, copyright violation notices and other weapons of war on the Web.

The freewheeling, post-hippie culture of the Internet's early settlers, who believed information should be free, is butting heads with the world's corporate culture, which believes information is money and that technology provides the opportunity to control it in ways that it's never been controlled before.

As a result, digital technology will make intellectual property law one of the growth industries of the new millennium as it redefines the way we exchange words, pictures, music and ideas. Consider these fascinating skirmishes, all of which occurred over the past few weeks:

In the iCraveTV case, William Craig, a television executive from Pittsburgh, moved to Toronto last summer, and created a Web site that broadcasts locally available TV stations in RealAudio format. To get the broadcasts, all you need is a RealAudio player, which is available free at www.realnet works.com, or a recent version of Microsoft's Media Player, which is bundled with the Windows operating system.

Craig says he's perfectly within his rights under Canadian law, which allows retransmission of locally available signals as long as the content isn't altered. It just so happens that those signals include U.S. network affiliates in nearby Buffalo, N.Y.

Supposedly, the service is available only to Canadians. In fact, before you enter the site, you have to type in a Canadian telephone area code and click on a button that says you're watching from Canada. Try it -- enter area code 416, which is Toronto's, and click the "I'm in Canada" button. You'll get the broadcast, whether you're in Ottawa, Baltimore or Guam.

The networks, furious because iCraveTV can sell banner ads around the broadcast, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, calling it nothing more than "cyberspace stealing" and a violation of U.S. copyright law.

If iCraveTV were physically located in the United States, there's little doubt that the networks and movie studios would prevail. But iCraveTV is in Canada, where Canadian law applies. Or does it? In this case, the Internet makes national borders irrelevant. Look for some big legal fees.

Now let's move to Seattle, where RealNetworks -- which produces the software that iCraveTV uses to broadcast American TV from a Canadian Web site -- is engaged in a lawsuit of its own. It wants to stop a little company called Streambox (www.streambox.com) from publishing software that will let users capture RealAudio Web broadcasts and save them on their hard drives in other formats, such as the popular MP3.

Most RealAudio broadcasts are encrypted -- they can be decoded by special software and played in real time, but not stored in high-quality, digital format. If it weren't for that feature, the recording industry would probably never agree to music broadcasts by Internet radio stations.

RealNetwork filed suit to stop Streambox, claiming the copyrights to its software had been violated. Streambox argued that under copyright laws, users have the right to control the medium in which they listen to music (for example, it's legal to tape a radio broadcast for your own use).

Who's right? A federal judge split his preliminary decision. He lifted a restraining order that prohibited Streambox from distributing its Ripper software for audio broadcasts, but temporarily banned the distribution of companion programs for video broadcasts until the issue can be decided in full trial. Lawyers everywhere are watching with glee.

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