TVU chief grapples with copyright questions

Legal experts say company may be tapping into tried-and-true ways to get sued by big copyright holders.

Paul Shen, the CEO of controversial TVU Networks, said he doesn't understand why anyone in television would consider his company a threat. In fact, he said he comes to the TV industry bearing gifts.

Shen is the creator of the TVUPlayer , which enables people to stream live TV broadcasts to one another via the Internet. The blogging community in recent months has showered praise on the technology for aggregating TV channels such as ESPN, the Disney Channel, Fox and NBC in one place, and for creating a Web TV experience that more closely resembles traditional viewing.

But almost everyone who writes about TVU Networks' growing popularity has plenty of questions about the start-up. Who is behind the nifty technology? How does the company make money? Is the service legal?

In an interview with CNET News.com, Shen said the TVUPlayer is nothing more than a way to demonstrate his technology, which he claims can help broadcasters mine a rich new distribution platform and advertise to new customers. He acknowledged that much of the content on the TVUPlayer belongs to others but denied being a video pirate. Users of his technology are responsible for any copyright violations, Shen said, and they are the ones who stream the TV broadcasts--though he conceded that they are able do this only through the use of his technology.

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Is he right? Arguing that a technology company isn't responsible for the actions of its users is not a new idea and has met with mixed results, said Fred von Lohmann, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which often defends tech entrepreneurs in copyright infringement cases.

"We've seen this business model before," von Lohmann said. "First there was Napster and then other companies who told themselves, 'Hey, if I attract enough users, the (entertainment companies) will have to deal with me.' When they tried that trick in 1999, it led to a downpour of attorneys."

At a time when YouTube and other video-sharing sites are under pressure to cleanse their sites of unauthorized videos , some worry that copyright issues could thwart the ability of online video to reach its potential as a means to distribute entertainment. YouTube recently was asked by a Japanese copyright group to purge its site of 30,000 clips, and Viacom made a similar request regarding videos on the site from "Comedy Central." Representatives for YouTube declined to comment.

In such a climate, it's easy to see why TV networks and cable stations are leery of companies like TVU Networks. The company's peer-to-peer software enables people to stream live TV broadcasts on to the Web without any authorization and involves file sharing--a word that always gives entertainment executives pause.

In some ways, TVU Networks resembles some of the file-sharing start-ups that plagued the music industry for years. There's very little information about the company on its Web site and what is there is a bit confusing. Until recently, the site prominently announced that the company is based in Shanghai. The site's contact page still lists a Shanghai address, but Shen lives and works in Northern California. He declined to say which city. TVU Networks, like many companies, is incorporated in Delaware.

Nonetheless, Shen maintains that broadcasters have nothing to fear from him.

"I really was not intending to catch so much attention," said Shen, who saw the popularity of his service mushroom during the World Cup soccer championship games over summer. "Our goal is to create a new transmission medium."

He said his service was created to do nothing more than to demonstrate his peer-to-peer technology, which he argued can help TV stations save boatloads of money.

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