US TV biz sues ad-zapping SonicBlue

'Copyright theft'

The US TV industry is suing consumer electronics manufacturer SonicBlue for infringing copyright with its latest ReplayTV digital recorder.

The ReplayTV 4000 allows users to record TV shows - between 40 and 320 hours of them, depending on the model you choose - and skip past all the ads when the material is played back. This, say the plaintiffs in a suit filed with the US District Court for Central California, deprives them of revenue and - get this - reduces their incentive to make new programmes.

In other words, if you don't watch the ads, they won't feel like making the shows that 90 per cent of the viewing public watch in real time. Of course, the other 10 per cent record programmes on their analog VCRs and simply fast-forward through the ads; but this does not appear to bother the apparently revenue-deprived US TV industry.

The poor old plaintiffs also argue that the ReplayTV 4000 allows users to make perfect digital copies of TV shows which can then be distributed to the users.

Here they have a point: the ReplayTV 4000's ability to share shows via an Internet connection is of questionable legality. One could claim that such a right is maintained through the US Home Recording Act of 1982 - which permits users to make copies of copyright works they have bought for friends and family. But this failed to save Napster from the Recording Industry Association of America. And it is unlikely to help SonicBlue either.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is likely to provide even less succour.

Of course, SonicBlue could argue that this kind of thing happens all the time as pals pass taped copies of shows they missed to each other. But the ReplayTV 4000's version of this process opens up the prospect of mass piracy, Napster-style, even though it only connects to other ReplayTV 4000 and you can only 'mail' to one user at a time.

It's stretching the point to suggest that this amounts to re-broadcasting, rather than sharing, but you can see why the TV biz is getting so hot and bothered.

SonicBlue is getting to be an old hand with copyright infringement cases. Under its old name, Diamond Multimedia, the company was sued by the record industry over its MP3 player, Rio. ®