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Nets, Studios Seek To Overturn Cablevision Copyright Ruling

Copyright holders are backing an effort by CNN and several studios to get the Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court ruling that Cablevision's remote storage of digital copies of programs does not violate copyright limitations on reproduction or public performance.

The issue is the copying and storage of those shows for Cablevision's virtual DVR service.

CNN, Cartoon Network and others who supply programing to the cable company had argued that the deals were for airplay, not storage or other performances. While DVRs like those made by Tivos and built in to set-top boxes store programs on viewers' own hard drives, analagous to a videotape copy, Cablevision's system stores copies on its own servers. Copyright holders see that as a big difference from the home recording rights established in the Sony videotape case.

The appeals court had reversed a lower court ruling that barred the virtual DVR functionality as a copyright violation.

The studios' support of CNN et al's petition to the high court to overturn that appeals court ruling comes as no surprise. Several Motion Picture Association of America members were petitioners to the suit and the studios filed suit to block the technology when it was first announced back in 2006, claiming it would constitute an unauthorized reproduction of their work.

The initial suit was filed by Turner Broadcasting System’s Cartoon Network and CNN, plus Fox, NBC, Disney, CBS and ABC. Thoser same parties a month ago sought the Supreme Court review of the appeals court decision, saying that decision "fundamentally distorts copyright law."

In an amicus brief filed with the court (a copy of which was supplied B&C Wednesday), the Copyright Alliance said it had never filed a brief in any court before. It said it was breaking precedent to ask the court to take the case because the decision could be "so detrimental to the health of our copyright system," saying Cablevision should have to pay for the privilege of copying and transmitting copies of their works, which potentially undercuts their value.

The alliance includes the Motion Picture Association of America, the NAB, major sports leagues, and other copyrightholders including B&C parent Reed Elsevier.

Analysts and industry insiders say the back story to the studios’ opposition is to prevent the further erosion of ad-supported TV programming, which is easier if consumers can skip commercials.

Cablevision argued that the network-DVR service wouldn’t differ in functionality from the set-top DVRs it was already supplying and that by apportioning part of its server storage to individual subscribers, any time-shifting or ad-skipping that they did would be considered “fair use” of TV content.

Judge Denny Chin of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York sided with the programmers and enjoined Cablevision from operating the network-DVR system without securing licenses from its content providers. Since then, network-DVR-like services that other cable operators have launched using headend servers -- such as Time Warner Cable’s “Start Over” and “Look Back” and Cox Communications’ offering of ABC primetime shows through its video-on-demand service -- have been based on removing subscribers’ ability to fast-forward through commercials in that programming.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York last August reversed that ruling, saying that such a service “would not directly infringe plaintiffs’ exclusive rights to reproduce and publicly perform their copyrighted works.” The court lifted the U.S. District Court’s injunction against Cablevision and remanded the case back to that lower court for further proceedings.

Now, studios want the further proceeding to the the Supreme Court telling the appeals court it made the wrong call.