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Cablevision and the Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court inched closer today to revisiting -- again -- its landmark 1984 decision in Sony Corp. of America vs. Universal City Studios, better known as the Betamax case. This time, the issue is whether consumers' right to record TV shows for later viewing can evaporate if they use the wrong technology. Put another way, the question is whether home recording rights can be lost if they're provided as part of a service instead of a piece of equipment.

Cablevision, a Long Island, N.Y.-based cable TV provider, wants to offer its customers the digital equivalent of a Betamax recorder. Instead of putting the recorder in a set-top box, as most cable and satellite TV operators do (as does TiVo), the company wants to put it in the central office of its cable system. The major TV networks and film studios sued to block the service, claiming it violated their copyrights. They persuaded District Judge Denny Chin to block Cablevision's plans in March 2007 (with a bizarrely reasoned ruling), but a 2nd Circuit panel overturned that decision and sided with Cablevision (although its reasoning also seemed to be based less on well-established principles than on reaching the desired outcome).

The studios appealed to the Supreme Court, which has yet to decide whether to take the case. This morning, though, the justices asked the U.S. solicitor general to opine on whether Cablevision's service violated copyright law. It's a great case because it shows how new technologies pose unexpected challenges to copyright doctrines. Both Chin and the 2nd Circuit seemed to lose themselves in the technological weeds, examining in intricate detail how Cablevision's system worked. From a 30,000-foot perspective, the issue presented here is pretty simple: If I build a system that lets you, dear consumer, record shows for later viewing, should it matter if put that system somewhere other than a box in your home that I lease to you for $X per month? As long as you're the one deciding what to record and when to record it, does it really matter where the hard drive is?

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

 
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