“Personal video recorders” (PVRs) are the hot new item in the television industry. Tivo and Sonicblue Replay are the market leaders. These boxes act like a super VCR. They record shows for viewing later, holding thirty or more hours of shows at a time. They present program directories; they keep track of the shows you watch and record things you haven’t asked for but that you might like. TV hounds quickly get to the point that they can’t imagine life without their Tivo or Replay.

The usual entertainment industry heavyweights – Disney, AOL Time Warner, the three TV networks – ganged up on Sonicblue and charged into federal court. Last week they convinced a federal magistrate to issue a shocking order. Sonicblue was ordered to immediately begin spying on its users – to collect information about what shows Sonicblue users were watching, what commercials they skipped, and what happened to copies of the shows – and forward that information to the entertainment powerhouses.

There are several theories advanced by the industry to support its claim that using a newfangled VCR is copyright infringement and all the users are pirates. How about this one: if you record a TV show and skip commercials when you play it back, you are a thief and a pirate. That sounds so ridiculous you probably think I’m overstating it. Not a bit. Here’s an interview with Turner Broadcasting CEO Jamie Kellner, where he spells out that theory in detail and calls PVR users thieves. When asked why personal video recorders are bad for the industry, Kellner says, “Because of the ad skips…. It’s theft. Your contract with the network when you get the show is you’re going to watch the spots. Otherwise you couldn’t get the show on an ad-supported basis. Any time you skip a commercial or watch the button you’re actually stealing the programming.”

He is not joking.

When asked if he considers people who go to the bathroom during a commercial to be thieves, Kellner responded: “I guess there’s a certain amount of tolerance for going to the bathroom.”

Sonicblue got a temporary restraining order, but that only delays the ruling for two weeks. Another hearing will then take place on whether it will be required to spy on its customers. Here’s an article about the TRO granted today.

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