Court Orders SonicBlue to Spy on ReplayTV Users

By Robert Menta 5/02/02

What is ReplayTV but the digital equivalent of a VCR. The digital part allows these units to offer added capabilities that augment the user experience, but for all meaningful purposes it does the same thing. That doesn't matter, though, because the movie and TV industries are determined to shut this technology down through the courts. Their claim that ReplayTV is piracy is no different from the claims they made 20 years ago against the standard VCR.

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The movie industry lost the VCR case in the Supreme Court, but that loss came after a victory in the second highest court in the land that declared VCR's were illegal and that the average home consumer was guilty of daily copyright infringement. Until the Supreme Court's reversal, the act of taping your favorite TV show to watch later was a felony.

Digital technology today is forced to travel that same route, spending hundreds-of-millions in legal fees to fight for the right to bring out consumer products that are not under the direct control of the media giants. Like the Sony case of two decade ago there might be several losses along the way and there is no guarantee a manufacturer like SonicBlue will have the funds to appeal to the higher courts. Court costs raise the cost to deliver a product to market, sometimes by so much that the product cannot achieve profitability. That is why the legal system has become such an effective business tool for competing entities with deep pockets, every loss is expensive for the defendant (wins too for that matter).

SonicBlue has just experienced one of those losses, a court ordered action that will not directly effect the product as it is sold in the marketplace, but it is one that is invasive to the public.

Central District Court Magistrate of Los Angeles Charles F. Eick has ordered SonicBlue to spy on its ReplayTV users, invading their privacy by supplying all available information pertaining to how consumers use the appliance. Required to monitor every show recorded by every user, this information is to be turned directly over to the film and television industries.

"This is something that we find personally very troubling.'' said SonicBlue's CEO Ken Potashner. ``We've been ordered to invade the privacy of our customers,''

The TV networks claim that some of ReplayTV's features, which include an auto skip function to bypass commercials, offer technology that is detrimental to their industry. Industry attorney's say they need the information to effective gauge how damaging these features might be. Actually they said they want determine the extent to which the ReplayTV 4000 allows consumers to steal copyrighted movies and television shows.

There are executives out there who still claim home taping on a standard VCR is damaging the industry. They say that while counting the additional billions brought in every year by the home rental industry, an industry they originally tried to shut down and then bought out whenit proved to be a financial windfall rather than theft.

Technology companies are not all saints, and not all of the complaints by the major entertainment conglomerates are without validity. But cartels are less worried about valid points than they are of control. They don't control the technology companies who bring innovation nor do they try to understand the commercial potential such innovation can offer. All they want to do is preserve a very profitable status quo. Change is viewed as a threat and all potential threats, no matter how weak or inconclusive that threat might be, will be addressed with an iron fist.

The consumers? We are again stuck in the middle as we will probably watch the entertainment industry's legal team look over our private information for trial fodder - then with a wink "inadvertently" pass that private information to their respective marketing departments.

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