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Will Internet DVR Be Banned In Singapore?

Do consumers have the right to record broadcasted video? The US Supreme Court seemed to cement this right into law more than 30 years when they legalized the VCR. However each time a piece of the technology is modernized media companies use it as an opportunity to challenge this basic consumer right by going back to court. They've consistently lost every legal challenge - until now - with a disturbing case in Singapore. More on that later, but first a review.

In the 70s, Sony invented a recording device which would record TV programming onto a cassette format called Betamax. Universal Studios and the Walt Disney Corporation sued Sony claiming the device was illegal and would decimate their business. After a lengthy legal battle the Supreme Court ruled in the Betamax case that personal recording using a VCR (video cassette recorder) is fair use. Far from eviscerating the movie industry it unlocked the video rental business adding billions in revenue.

The DVR (digital video recorder) which stored recordings on hard disk rather than tape was launched in 1999 at the Consumer Electronics Show. This made it easy to record hours of programming and quickly access and play it back. Anthony J. Wood was the founder and CEO of the technology leader ReplayTV which offered remote viewing, 30 second fast forward, and auto-skipping of commercials. They were sued by companies alleging these technology innovations were copyright infringements. Unable to pay their legal bills they were forced into bankruptcy and the case was dropped once they promised to remove key features from future devices. The company has quietly faded to oblivion with the legal issues never fully litigated. (Mr. Wood is now CEO of the popular video streaming box company Roku.)

Cablevision brought the next innovation to the video recording industry by building a centralized recording system removing the need for each person to have their own dedicated box. This makes it easy and cost effective to roll-out RS(remote storage)-DVR to all of their subscribers. Movie studios quickly launched a legal assault alleging that using a centralized DVR was a copyright infringement. The lower court sided with the media companies, but the appellate court overturned the decision allowing a remote DVR. The logic was regardless of where the equipment resides it was still the user doing the recording.

This brings us to RecordTV, an innovative company based in Singapore that offers an I-DVR or internet digital video recorder. Users in this island-nation can record the HD broadcast channels, available to all residents, using a centralized recording service accessible via a web browser. Once recorded the programming is viewable from any net connected PC. It's geo-restricted to only Singaporeans. This service is nearly identical to the Cablevision service with the only notable difference being that the recording is from over the air transmissions instead of cable wires.

Media companies filed a lawsuit against RecordTV. The Judge recently handed down his ruling and with it made the analogy to Cablevision contending the consumer is making the copy. However he found that when the user viewed that same recording that it is public not private even though all content is password protected to each user rendering it an infringement. It seems illogical to rule that the recording is consumer directed but not the subsequent playback. Unfortunately, the ruling effectively outlawing the service. I recently learned that an appeal has been filed.

It's great to see innovation out of Singapore, a locale not usually known for internet or technology innovation. Surprisingly Singaporean courts have turned on their industrious and clever homegrown entrepreneur RecordTV CEO Carlos Fernandez when they should be lauding his efforts as an example for other young Asian businessmen. I hope the parallels with Cablevision in which the lower court was eventually reversed via the appeal process are repeated with RecordTV and the right for consumers to record media remains in tact even half way around the world.

--MR
michael@michaelrobertson.com



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