March 25, 2007
RS-DVR Struck Down in Federal Court, But the DVR Isn't Going Away

The battle between Cablevision and various content owners has come to a head with a decision from a New York federal judge this past week, ruling that the cable provider has no right to create a system through which viewers could choose to pick particular programs and have it stored by the cable system itself for later viewing, instead of recording it on their own DVR. The system is called RS-DVR, which stands for "remote storage."

The decision was made that such a system in which the cable system would save the content and allow viewers to watch it later was a violation of copyrights, while the DVR was not, because of where the content would be stored.

The suit involved CBS, NBC, Disney, Time Warner, Twentieth Century Fox, and The Cartoon Network, which is a member of Turner Broadcasting, one of the partners in the Convergence Culture Consortium.

Turner's Misty Skedgell was quoted in Mike Farrell's Multichannel News story as saying that such "headend-based copying requires a license."

The argument is that storage and retransmission on the part of the cable company was a violation of copyright, since the storage was not happening on the viewers' end. With networks attempting to offer products like video on demand, such options from cable service providers was seen as unauthorized competition.

While there may be an appeal coming, Cablevision has indicated that it will at least continue to offer DVRs to its subscribers, even though the remote storage option that was struck down last week had been offered as a cheaper option for their cable subscribers.

Ira Teinowitz with TelevisionWeek quotes Public Knowledge President Gigi B. Sohn as saying, "This short-sighted decision makes no sense in an era of technological innovation. This is a decision that if upheld will stifle innovation and consumer choice. It is nonsensical at best and extremely harmful at worst. The only saving grace is that it shows the need for Congress to update our copyright laws to conform to today's technology."

Rafat Ali with paidContent writes, "Other cable operators had been vocal in their support for such a system, but have not jumped into it for fear of such legal reprisal."

I can understand the distinction here and the gripe of the content owners, since it is hard to distinguish how the RS-DVR does not conflict with their own VOD efforts, and distinguishing WHERE the material is stored does seem to make a difference. Nevertheless, I'm sure that analysts are not exaggerating when pointing out that the judge's ruling will deflate some of the focused research on rolling out more effective content storage possibilities, considering the legal "chilling factor" the judge's decision may create.

But, as Eric Bangeman with ARS Technica points out, however much merit the argument of where the content is stored may have, "It's a short-sighted argument by the broadcasters. DVR usage has been shown to increase interest in watching TV, something the networks would want given the number of other entertainment forms competing for the attention of would-be viewers. But the broadcasters don't like one of the habits associated with DVR ownership--skipping ads--and should a networked DVR like Cablevision's take off due to its low price and ease of use, that would mean even fewer people willing to sit through commercials."

Bangeman says, "Although the technology is different from a standard DVR, the end result is the same: programming is stored on a hard drive for viewing at a later point in time."

Although I agree that the law may be on the networks' side, perhaps their legal efforts matter little in the long run. The behavior is still the same, and DVR usage will continue to increase, even if the RS-DVR is not part of the system.

No one at Turner Broadcasting was contacted regarding this entry.