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MobiTV backs away from threats to website that posted links to free videos

A change of heart

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Updated A provider of TV shows for mobile phone users has backed down from threats to shut down a website forum that showed how to watch its videos for free.

Lawyers for MobiTV had warned the owner of HowardForums.com that he faced legal action if he didn't immediately remove plain-text links from the forum that gave free access to a host of shows from channels including Animal Planet, NBC Comedy, and ESPN. Howard Chui had refused, arguing that responsibility for the breach is the result of MobiTV's failure to adequately lock down the content.

The Register suggested the legal action was likely to blow up in MobiTV's face, and evidently, the company agreed.

"Howard, great catching up today," MobiTV's president wrote, in a kiss-and-makeup message posted on Chui's site. "Again, we're big fans of the sight [sic] and our intention was never to bring your entire sight down or to 'censor the Internet' like we're being accused."

There was nothing in the unnamed president's comments explicitly agreeing to drop the demands, but Chui wrote elsewhere on his site that "The problem has been solved."

Lawyers for MobiTV had hinted at the prospect of having his entire domain shut down if he didn't comply. Specifically, they threatened to contact Chui's Atlanta-based webhost and ICANN, in a move that sounded eerily similar to tactics employed last month against whistle-blower website Wikileaks.

MobiTV, which touts its service here as a way for "service providers to drive revenue through compelling video services," requires people to pay $9.99 per month to view video on their mobile devices. But late last month, several HowardForums users showed it was possible to get the content for free simply by pasting the links into their favorite media viewer.

Among other things, the thread made clear that MobiTV's mechanism for securing videos relies solely on people not being able to guess the addresses that link to the content. But rather than fix the problem with software that does a better job of restricting unauthorized users' access, MobiTV opted to demand that Chui remove the thread.

"The post on this page - http://www.howardforums.com/showthread.php?t=1332161 - is all about getting MobiTV (or Sprint TV) for free, at least on your desktop if not on your phone," a lawyer wrote, according to a transcript of the letter provided on HowardForums. "This thread needs to be removed."

Wikileaks redux?

The MobiTV attorney went on to say that the unpublished links could only be obtained by "hacking," which is a violation of MobiTV's intellectual property rights.

The lawyer closed by saying: "We are going to contact ICANN as well as your host to resolve this matter if you refuse to remove these threads."

But Chui refused.

"I don't think I've done anything wrong, the owner of the Toronto-based website said in an interview. "The fact that it's so easy to view this stuff, they're not really doing anything to protect their content provider's content."

The dispute was in some ways reminiscent of the recently dropped lawsuit a Cayman Islands bank filed against Wikileaks.org for posting confidential documents purporting to show clients engaged in illegal money laundering and tax evasion. A federal judge was forced to reverse an earlier order shutting down the domain name after a raft of civil liberties attorneys challenged it on First-Amendment grounds.

The threat to bring in ICANN and Chui's web host is similar to Julius Baer's suing of Dynadot, the registrar of the Wikileaks.org domain name. Last week, US District Judge Jeffrey S. White conceded that he probably violated the Constitution when he laid down an order requiring the domain name to be made inaccessible and locked so it couldn't be transferred to another webhost.

That case didn't involve copyright law, so the comparisons only went so far. What's more applicable was Julius Baer's failure to make the confidential documents any harder to obtain. To the contrary, hundreds of websites and BitTorrent feeds quickly mirrored the confidential data, ensuring it will forever be in the public domain. And that pretty much guaranteed that MobiTV, even if it won the legal battle, was sure to lose the case.

So kudos to MobiTV for figuring out that this information is out there forever and no number of lawyers can change that. That much is clear from this Google query, showing the verboten MobiTV links that will only grow over time.

Instead of legal threats, MobiTV will have to turn to its programmers to solve the problem by actually securing the content it wants to charge for.

Alas, as of the writing of this update, it was still possible to view forbidden videos simply by pasting a link such as rtsp://live.mobitv.com:554/1-CDMA.sdp into RealPlayer or some other media player. Even still, we're willing to bet a technical approach to the problem will succeed far sooner than a legal approach. ®

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