Web VCR site revives Net TV debates

A controversy-in-waiting is gathering steam on the Web, as a small Los Angeles service attempts to meld the Internet with the features of a VCR.

A controversy-in-waiting is gathering steam on the Web, as a small Los Angeles service attempts to meld the Internet with the features of a VCR.

RecordTV.com is offering Web surfers the ability to record TV shows and play them back online. Already, 50,000 people use the service, and snowballing interest is overwhelming the small site's systems.

But rewind just a few months, and the story looks similar to the efforts of Canadian start-up iCraveTV, which hoped to put live broadcast television on the Web late last year. That effort collapsed under the weight of massive lawsuits from U.S. and Canadian broadcasters in February.

RecordTV founder David Simon said the company is simply replicating a VCR online and hopes to avoid the legal troubles that undermined iCraveTV.

"We act like a VCR, we work like a VCR, and we should fall under the same (legal) exemptions as a regular VCR," Simon said.

Already the same industry giants that sunk iCraveTV are taking a hard look at Simon's service. And Simon said he's looking for funding to support future legal bills.

The small site's business plan underscores an unresolved issue: Who will control popular TV content as more consumers go online to be entertained?

The TV broadcasters want this power because they're producing the content. But Net companies, impatient with TV companies' cautious progress online, are chafing to bring the broadcasters' content online themselves.

In the United States, companies that want to use broadcast TV feeds are required to get a license from broadcasters. Late last year, the TV industry went to Congress in an attempt to block Net companies from being able to get those permits. That effort was derailed at the last minute, but the issue remains unresolved.

iCraveTV initially thought it was shielded from copyright questions by Canadian law as long as it agreed to pay the broadcasters royalties. But movie studios, sports leagues and TV stations on both sides of the border disagreed. They filed lawsuits worth billions of dollars against the small company.

Rather than risk the financial damage, iCraveTV pulled its own plug and sought a new business model.

As Simon looks for investors and major advertisers to support his site, the same forces that shut down iCraveTV are circling.

"We are looking at it," said a spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA called iCraveTV "one of the largest and most brazen thefts of intellectual property ever committed in the United States" in its lawsuit earlier this year.

Simon said he started the Los Angeles-based service late last year as an experiment for his children. They had computers and Net connections in their rooms but no television, and they still wanted to watch their favorite cartoons, he said.

He quietly made the service public early this year, and word started leaking out in March. Now he gets about 200,000 hits a day, with more than 50,000 users, he said.

That level of interest is overwhelming his initially small ambitions. He's ordered one set of faster Web connections, with another set on the way in another six weeks. But already the site is almost unreachable because of the amount of traffic overloading its servers.

Nor is the service without flaws. One attempt to record a Los Angeles news show resulted in only a message that the recording was unsuccessful.

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