Fast forward as theft

This is another column about the copyright industry. It might seem like I'm fixated on the topic and maybe that's somewhat the case, but it's because I fear copyright holders want to turn the internet into something that is legally limited to providing the services they think are okay.

This is another column about the copyright industry. It might seem like I'm fixated on the topic and maybe that's somewhat the case, but it's because I fear copyright holders want to turn the internet into something that is legally limited to providing the services they think are okay.

There were two triggers for my revisiting the topic:

-- First, in an interview with Cableworld magazine, Jamie Kellner, the head of ad-supported television for Turner Broadcasting System (the people that bring you CNN), said that skipping ads on a recorded TV show was theft.

-- Second, The Mercury News in San Jose reported that a judge in Los Angeles ordered SonicBlue, the maker of digital video recording system ReplayTV, to develop software within the next 60 days to "record every click from every customer's remote control". In particular the judge wants to have a record of which shows individual users copy, store and view; what commercials they skip; and which programs they send to other users.

In the Cableworld interview, Kellner said skipping ads is theft because, "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 ... you're actually stealing the programming."

He does have a point, but it's a point rendered invalid by the real world. A world in which CNN replays the same, often mind-numbingly stupid ad twice an hour for months at a time. Is it in anyone's benefit, particularly Dell's, if I am forced to watch that weird Dell dude recite the same dumb dialogue 100 times? In my case it would guarantee that I would never buy a Dell product -- to do otherwise would be supporting mental torture. It is possible to create ads that people want to see, though that might be hard to tell while watching CNN.

There are already DVDs sold where the DVD player doesn't let you skip the 10-minute ad at the start of the movie. If Kellner had his way, you wouldn't even be able to mute the sound on commercials you hate. I wonder if he reads all the ads in the Sunday paper, just to be consistent.

Separately, the implication of the judge's order in the SonicBlue case is that the Kellners of the world might be able to check to see that you are following their rules. Because there is no technical reason for a device such as ReplayTV to send any reports to the manufacturer, the judge is ordering a vendor to spy on its customers and modify its products to make that possible. Not a good precedent at all.

What's next -- real-time reports to Microsoft when your company uses a non-Microsoft product? I believe in a balance between the rights of copyright holders and the rest of the world. These two incidents indicate to me that there is currently an increasing tilt away from the users.

(Disclaimer: Harvard is made up of users and some tilters, but the above is my view.)

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.

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