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Thurs., Jun. 6, 2002, 6:30pm PT

ReplayTV customers sue studios, nets

Consumers' say use of device is legal under copyright law


Just how much do consumers love their digital video recorders?

How about enough to sue the entertainment industry for the right to continue using them to digitally record television shows on a set-top box without the need of videotape and to quickly skip over commercials.

On the behalf of five ReplayTV owners, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Ira Rothken of the Rothken Law Firm in San Rafael filed a lawsuit in the Los Angeles federal court on Thursday against the major TV networks and film studios, asking the court to rule that the Replay customers' use of the device is legal under copyright law.

The civil liberties org said court action is needed because the entertainment biz calls use of the ReplayTV 4000 "theft" and "stealing."

The devices' owners are taking that personally.

"These Hollywood guys want to stop me from using my digital video recorder like I use my VCR, like for watching shows when I want or zipping through commercials," said Craig Newmark, a ReplayTV owner and plaintiff. "I want to give my nephews and nieces a break from the rampant consumerism on TV by using ReplayTV's commercial-skipping feature."

However, that very action is infuriating broadcasters CBS, ABC and NBC, which last October partnered with film studios Paramount, Universal, Disney and MGM to sue ReplayTV parent Sonicblue for copyright infringement.

The companies say that by skipping commercials and being given the ability to send via the Internet a TV show or movie to another ReplayTV 4000 owner, content owners face the risk of losing billions in revenues.

Earlier this month, a federal court overturned a ruling that would have forced Sonicblue to track the viewing habits of customers who use ReplayTVs. Media giants had argued that they needed the data, including details on what commercials viewers skip and what files they transfer across the Internet, to press their case against the company for allegedly aiding copyright violations (Daily Variety, June 5).

There was plenty of buzz about the new suit among Hollywood lobbyists in Washington, who are leading the intense battle to protect their content in the age of digital TV.

In a first-ever agreement announced earlier this week, studios, the consumer electronics biz and the computer business loosely agreed to develop technology that would stop digital TV from being uploaded to the Internet. Not all tech companies signed on, saying that Hollywood wanted too much control.

While the EFF hopes its suit will help protect ReplayTV against Hollywood's heavyweights, it may be dismissed based simply on the fact that, as with the music biz's attack on companies such as Napster, broadcasters have no plans to directly sue customers.

"This suit is nothing more than a publicity stunt," said the networks and studios involved in the suit against ReplayTV in a statement released by the Motion Picture Assn. of America late Thursday. "Our lawsuit is against Sonicblue and ReplayTV -- not individual users. We have never indicated any desire or intent to bring legal action against individual consumers for use of this device. Sonicblue and ReplayTV were aware that they were stepping over the line of legality when they made and marketed this device. Any complaint that consumers may have is with Sonicblue and Replay."

But EFF argues that consumers will be the victims if Hollywood gets its way. "Rather than encourage innovation and provide customers with an experience worthy of attention, Hollywood intends to outlaw a new and promising technology," said EFF senior intellectual property attorney Fred von Lohmann. "It's just as alarming as the Betamax case of the 1980s when Hollywood tried to ban VCRs."

© 2002 Reed Business Information © 2002 Variety, Inc.
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