Launching a preemptive strike in federal court, a high-powered group of television networks and Hollywood studios Wednesday sued the makers of an as-yet unreleased digital video recorder that can send copies of movies and TV shows over the Internet.
The copyright-infringement lawsuit against ReplayTV Inc. and its owner, Sonicblue Inc., carries the battle over Internet "file-sharing" to a new front: consumer electronics companies. That's because the new ReplayTV 4000 models, which are scheduled to begin delivery this month, are the first living-room devices built to transmit through the Net the programs they record.
The lawsuit also seeks to bar ReplayTV and Sonicblue from making video recorders that can automatically skip commercials.
The suit was brought in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles by Viacom International Inc., NBC Inc., Disney Enterprises Inc. and seven affiliated companies, including Disney's ABC Inc. and Viacom's CBS Broadcasting Inc., the United Paramount Network and Showtime Networks Inc. Showtime, Disney and NBC all were investors in ReplayTV before it was acquired this year by Sonicblue.
"We have demonstrated and will continue to demonstrate a desire to protect copyrights," said Ken Potashner, chief executive of Sonicblue.
Sonicblue also owns the Rio digital music players, which the major record labels tried unsuccessfully to stop with a federal lawsuit in 1998. The movie studios launched a similar, failed legal assault on Sony's VCRs two decades ago, resulting in a landmark Supreme Court decision in Sony's favor in 1984.
The TV networks and movie studios have made rumblings for several years about digital video recorders, objecting to the ease with which users can skip commercials. But they also have invested in several of the companies making the devices.
In their new lawsuit, the networks and movie studios focus on two novel features of the ReplayTV 4000 models. Priced from $700 to $2,000, the devices can be set to skip commercials automatically whenever a recorded program is played back, and they have a high-speed Internet port that can download programs from the Net or send them to other ReplayTV 4000s. The networks and studios asked the court for an injunction blocking the AutoSkip and Send Show features.
The AutoSkip feature circumvents the advertiser-supported networks' means of paying for their programming, the lawsuit argues. That separation of programs from their funding source violates copyright law, it alleges.
The Send Show feature, meanwhile, enables someone who pays for a pay-per-view or premium channel to copy and send those shows to people who don't. That also violates copyright law, the lawsuit argues.
Andy Wolfe, chief technical officer of Sonicblue, said that consumers already have the ability to skip commercials in recorded programs and share TV programs over the Net. "We're not enabling people to do either of those things," he said.
Several copyright experts said the networks and studios may have a tough time fighting the commercial-skipping functions, given that they don't own the copyrights to the commercials. The argument against transmitting shows over the Internet, however, is much stronger, they said.