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TVBrick to pump Japanese TV across Net

Massive copyright infringement?

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French open source software company Nexedi has launched TVBrick an Internet-based system designed to help Japanese folk overseas keep up with the favourite TV shows.

And we don't think the Japanese TV companies - or their foreign counterparts are going to like it very much. It arguably represents copyright infringement on a massive scale.

TVBrick works something like this. At home, in Japan, you connect your TVBrick to your TV and to the Internet via a broadband link. When you're away, you can use a standard PC, again connected by broadband, to log into your TVBrick and start watching. Nexedi also offers what it calls the TVBrick Player, a simple playback system for users without a PC in their remote location.

The TVBrick grabs the TV signal, digitises it and squirts it off down the line to wherever you happen to be. In other words, it copies broadcast material and sends it off to a different location. There's no built-in hard drive, so there's no recording involved - the system appears to encode and transmit in real time.

Register readers may recall how the ill-fated SonicBlue was sued by the US TV industry for shipping a TiVo-style box that could share recorded programming across the Net. TVBrick does something that's not dissimilar.

In its defence, Nexedi admits that the picture quality isn't much good: it's sub-VHS and runs at around nine frames a second. "Users who really miss home TV or need to keep in touch with their country will love TVBrick. Other users will probably feel that the image quality is not good enough," the company says.

Will that be enough to keep the lawsuits away? Nexedi certainly hopes so, and its online FAQ tries hard to suggest that what it's doing is legal. "Briefly speaking, the use of TVBrick in private within the same family and without any commercial purpose is legal in most countries in Europe and in Japan," it claims.

The company's argument is that since you're effectively recording programs for personal use, and only you can view what you've recorded, using TVBrick is no different from using a domestic VCR or DVD recorder. Nexedi claims it's no different from Panasonic or Pioneer, who make and sell domestic video recorders.

Maybe, and maybe the TV industry will turn a blind eye while the playback quality is so low. Unfortunately, two factors may attract the industry's attention. First, TVBrick is based on open source software, and Nexedi has promised to offer the source code. That may allow canny users to develop applications that will allow recorded and transmitted programming to be copied or even shared.

Nexedi claims it has "included a feature in TVBrick to allow users to restrict access to their TVBrick Home Server to a very limited number of people of the same family", which turns out to be password protection. So its security depends on who you give the password to.

Secondly, Nexedi is already claiming image quality will improve significantly within two years - as bandwidth improves - and it admits that "it is not completely certain that the use of TVBrick is legal in countries of Common Law, such as the USA or UK where the notion of fair use is quite versatile from one jurisdiction to another".

That's one reason why it won't ship to native US or UK customers, it said, though it may reconsider if it finds a partner willing to take the risk. It is looking at shipping to other territories soon, but for now the focus remains on Japanese customers. Why? Because they have sufficient uplink bandwidth. TVBrick requires at least 256Kbps upload bandwidth. Most other countries' broadband systems offer far lower upload rates than download ones.

Nexedi talks about fine-tuning individuals' TVBricks in the lab, and how it will sell to non-Japanese customers "once the TVBrick home server reaches perfect reliability on fast network infrastructure". (our italics) Together that suggests the systems isn't entirely ready for prime time and that the company may even be building them on an ad hoc basis while it tests the technology.

The system isn't cheap, either. The TVBrick costs €950 ($1075), and Nexedi will also tap you for an annual "software upgrade service", which costs €150 ($170) - the first year's is free. That's in addition to Internet connection costs.

Nexedi also offers OpenBrick, a Linux-oriented appliance development platform for €300-400, which is based on a 300MHz NatSemi Geode CPU with TV-out. TVBrick is clearly a derivative of OpenBrick. ®

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TVBrick

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