On Monday, August 4, 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued an important decision that sets the stage for Cable companies and Satellite TV providers to sell technology that will allow for the archiving of recorded television shows in digital format. This decision overrules an earlier decision by a federal district court that ruled in 2007 that Cablevision could not pursue the technology because it would infringe the copyrights owned by content creators. While this decision is a big victory for Cable and Satellite TV companies I would suspect that this matter will ultimately make its way to the United States Supreme Court before it can finally be put to rest. My prediction is that if and when it does reach the US Supreme Court the decision of the Second Circuit will be upheld.
In March 2006, Cablevision, an operator of cable television systems, announced the advent of its new “Remote Storage DVR System.” As designed, the RS-DVR allows Cablevision customers who do not have a stand-alone DVR to record cable programming on central hard drives housed and maintained by Cablevision at a “remote” location. RS-DVR customers may then receive playback of those programs through their home television sets, using only a remote control and a standard cable box equipped with the RS-DVR software. Cablevision notified its content providers, including plaintiffs, of its plans to offer RS-DVR, but it did not seek any license from them to operate or sell the RS-DVR.
Plaintiffs, which hold the copyrights to numerous movies and television programs, sued Cablevision for declaratory and injunctive relief. They alleged that Cablevision’s proposed operation of the RS-DVR would directly infringe their exclusive rights to both reproduce and publicly perform their copyrighted works. Critically for our analysis here, plaintiffs alleged theories only of direct infringement, not contributory infringement, and defendants waived any defense based on fair use.
Ultimately, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Denny Chin, Judge), awarded summary judgment to the plaintiffs and enjoined Cablevision from operating the RS-DVR system without licenses from its content providers.
ABOUT THE TECHNOLOGY:
Cable companies like Cablevision aggregate television programming from a wide variety of “content providers”-the various broadcast and cable channels that produce or provide individual programs-and transmit those programs into the homes of their subscribers via coaxial cable. At the outset of the transmission process, Cablevision gathers the content of the various television channels into a single stream of data. Generally, this stream is processed and transmitted to Cablevision’s customers in real time. Thus, if a Cartoon Network program is scheduled to air Monday night at 8pm, Cartoon Network transmits that program’s data to Cablevision and other cable companies nationwide at that time, and the cable companies immediately re-transmit the data to customers who subscribe to that channel.
Under the new RS-DVR, this single stream of data is split into two streams. The first is routed immediately to customers as before. The second stream flows into a device called the Broadband Media Router (“BMR”), which buffers the data stream, reformats it, and sends it to the “Arroyo Server,” which consists, in relevant part, of two data buffers and a number of high-capacity hard disks. The entire stream of data moves to the first buffer (the “primary ingest buffer”), at which point the server automatically inquires as to whether any customers want to record any of that programming. If a customer has requested a particular program, the data for that program move from the primary buffer into a secondary buffer, and then onto a portion of one of the hard disks allocated to that customer. As new data flow into the primary buffer, they overwrite a corresponding quantity of data already on the buffer. The primary ingest buffer holds no more than 0.1 seconds of each channel’s programming at any moment. Thus, every tenth of a second, the data residing on this buffer are automatically erased and replaced. The data buffer in the BMR holds no more than 1.2 seconds of programming at any time. While buffering occurs at other points in the operation of the RS-DVR, only the BMR buffer and the primary ingest buffer are utilized absent any request from an individual subscriber.
As the district court observed, “the RS-DVR is not a single piece of equipment,” but rather “a complex system requiring numerous computers, processes, networks of cables, and facilities staffed by personnel twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week.” To the customer, however, the processes of recording and playback on the RS-DVR are similar to that of a standard set-top DVR. Using a remote control, the customer can record programming by selecting a program in advance from an on-screen guide, or by pressing the record button while viewing a given program. A customer cannot, however, record the earlier portion of a program once it has begun. To begin playback, the customer selects the show from an on-screen list of previously recorded programs. The principal difference in operation is that, instead of sending signals from the remote to an on-set box, the viewer sends signals from the remote, through the cable, to the Arroyo Server at Cablevision’s central facility. See id. In this respect, RS-DVR more closely resembles a VOD service, whereby a cable subscriber uses his remote and cable box to request transmission of content, such as a movie, stored on computers at the cable company’s facility. But unlike a VOD service, RS-DVR users can only play content that they previously requested to be recorded.
Cablevision has some control over the content available for recording: a customer can only record programs on the channels offered by Cablevision (assuming he subscribes to them). Cablevision can also modify the system to limit the number of channels available and considered doing so during development of the RS-DVR.
For more on this story see:
Cablevision Wins Appeal on RS-DVR (Wall Street Journal)
Cablevision wins playback ruling (Chicago Tribune)