ReplayTV's features have entertainment industry ticked

May 09, 2002|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

BY VIRTUE OF his father's occupation, my son Ike has lived most of his life in a house filled with computers and other electronic gadgets. As a result, he's hard to impress.

But a sleek silver box called the ReplayTV 4000 has his unmitigated admiration these days. Hooked up to a cable outlet, an Internet router and a TV in our basement, it provides a revolutionary television viewing experience.

"Amazing!" Ike said as he stopped by the office one night. "I just watched an entire hour of Star Trek in 38 minutes."

Ike could perform this feat of time compression because ReplayTV records programs on a hard drive and zaps commercials automically when you play the show back. Unlike TiVo, its main competition in the digital video recorder market, it doesn't require you to fast-forward through commercials or even pick up the remote control. As soon as a commercial pops up, it's gone, and suddenly you're watching the rest of the program with a grin on your face and an inane desire to jump up and shout, "Right on!"

That feature alone was enough to make the $700 gadget a lightning rod for lawsuits - and the latest target in an ongoing battle between the entertainment industry, its customers and makers of consumer electronics. After all, if the people who produce and distribute programs can't force you to watch commercials, how can they sell spots to advertisers?

But ReplayTV ads insult to injury. It allows users to transmit stored programs to other ReplayTV owners over the Internet.

Unlike its successful commercial-zapping, ReplayTV doesn't handle program transfers very well. First, it requires a broadband ethernet connection near your favorite TV set (something that maybe one-tenth of 1 percent of us actually have). Second, it's hard to set up and third, it's incredibly slow.

With most cable and DSL providers limiting uploads to 128 kilobits per second, it can take half a day to send a half-hour program. A two-hour movie? You might as well tape it and send it by mail.

But the very thought of users sharing paid content (such as HBO programming) is enough to drive broadcasters into a frenzy. They see ReplayTV as television's version of Napster, the online service that allowed millions of users to swap digital music files until the courts shut it down last year.

Even before the latest incarnation of ReplayTV went on sale in November, a coalition of media giants - including broadcast networks, Disney and AOL Time Warner - filed suit against SonicBlue Inc., the Santa Clara, Calif., company that makes the device.

SonicBlue, I should note, specializes in gadgets that make the entertainment industry see red. It also owns the Rio MP3 player line, which survived an attack by a battalion of music industry lawyers when it launched the portable digital music craze three years ago. Publicity over the attempt to squash the gadget established Rio as an industry leader.

SonicBlue acquired ReplayTV last year and launched an all-new version with features that delighted consumers, but provoked an attack from the broadcast and movie industries; they argue its commercial-skipping and file-sharing features violate their copyrights.

The scary thing is that they got a judge to listen. Early this month, a federal magistrate in Los Angeles issued an unprecedented order requiring SonicBlue to keep track of what programs its users record and transfer - albeit anonymously. The company, which deliberately refrained from such activity after its competitors got into trouble with similar spying, has 60 days to develop a tracking system and hand over the information to the broadcasters.

Privacy advocates reacted to this news like a pack of wolverines - not without reason - and SonicBlue is appealing.

But the real issue - and one that the courts and Congress will ultimately have to decide - is just what rights we have to make copies of the music we buy and the programming that's piped into our homes.

As much as they might suffer, I don't think broadcasters will have much luck with their commercial-skipping beef. You can already do that with a VCR - and the Supreme Court ruled long ago that noncommercial taping is legal. ReplayTV just does it faster - and better.

"We make our copies with the commercials in, and the consumer has the ability to watch the commercials," SonicBlue President Kenneth Potashner insisted in an interview this week. "At no point do we ever delete commercials, and I think it's a key point. If we were splicing and dicing content, the networks would have a stronger argument."

If the entertainment industry could successfully argue that by viewing a show you're legally bound to watch commercials, it might then be able to sue anyone who takes a bathroom break during the commercials breaks in a live broadcast. I'd hate to be the judge who made that ruling.

There's a better case to be made against Internet transfers, although Potashner argued that "our energy has been put into not making this a Napster."

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