In a case that could redefine US copyright law, the Big Four TV networks - ABC, Fox, NBC Universal and CBS - along with Hollywood studious such as Walt Disney and Paramount, are petitioning a New York district court to block Cablevision Systems from launching a new service that enables ordinary digital set-top boxes to function as TiVo-like DVRs.

Cablevision refers to the technology as a 'remote storage DVR' (RS-DVR), which is capable of operating via the forty-five million digital boxes currently in use.

There is one key difference between an RS-DVR and ordinary DVRs such as TiVo - the latter uses an integral hard disk to record shows while the former stores content on a Cablevision server. This would feed each customer's recorded shows back as and when they require via its cable lines and a standard digital box.

Use of the new technology would allow people to schedule in advance the shows they want to record, watch them whenever they wish, fast forward and rewind at will, and delete shows to make room for more up to a 45-hour limit.

The content owners contend that Cablevision is offering a video on demand service rather than a DVR, without paying the studios a license fee as VOD providers do.

"Unlike with a set-top box, Cablevision will copy copyrighted content and retransmit it without authorization," complains Kori Bernards of the Motion Picture Association of America. "Cablevision's refusal to seek a license has left the plaintiffs no option but to sue."

The MPAA and other content producers argue that the law distinguishes between consumers using a device and businesses providing a service. Cablevision, unsurprisingly, thinks otherwise, asserting it doesn't matter whether programs are stored three feet or three miles from the TV.

Furthermore, contends the cable operator, consumers record shows (or miss them if they forget to do so) on an ad hoc basis, unlike VOD where operators offer a specific menu of programming. "It's not 'like' a DVR. It is a DVR," submits Cablevision spokesman Jim Maiella.

The case continues

Data sourced from USA Today Online; additional content by WARC staff