By streaming video of popular television programs over the Web, a self-described peer-to-peer service called TVUPlayer has begun to draw a loyal worldwide following.
The service, however, could also become an enticing target for Hollywood legal eagles with an eye out for copyright infringement.
Indeed, TVUPlayer, offered by a Chinese company called TVU Networks, looks to some like it could draw legal challenges similar to those faced by the early Napster peer-to-peer service, which became a pinata for litigious lawyers because of what some described as copyright violations on a massive scale.
TVUPlayer transmits TV shows, including pay-for-view broadcasts, from U.S. and international broadcasters such as ABC, HBO, the Disney Channel, The Comedy Channel, Al Jazeera and Telecapri Sports of Italy.
It's easy to see why it's becoming popular: In addition to a big selection, the TVUPlayer's pictures are usually clearer than the choppy and grainy images that often mark streaming video. Viewers can't upload their own videos.
But copyright experts say that unless TVU Networks executives have permission to use the content they transmit, the company can't legally rebroadcast the shows. And representatives of three organizations whose content was found on the TVUPlayer said they don't have any deals with TVU Networks.
Matt Bourne, a spokesman for the National Basketball Association said TVU Networks is transmitting NBA TV without the league's permission.
"We are aware of the site," Bourne said. "We are working to explore our options in order to determine an appropriate course of action, including talking with other content owners."
When asked whether TVU Networks is authorized to stream Disney's content, Karen Hobson, a spokeswoman for the studio, said, "You can only get Disney Channel shows on iTunes (for download) or from our own Web site."
An HBO spokesman also said HBO programs aren't legally available anywhere on the Web.
Not a lot is known about Shanghai-based TVU Networks, which did not respond to interview requests. It's one of many start-ups trying to cash in on Web video, a sector that's bound to grow in the wake of Google's announced $1.65 billion purchase of video-sharing phenomenon YouTube. At the same time, online video, especially in the video-sharing segment, has been dogged by copyright issues. YouTube, Grouper and Bolt.com have been named in recent lawsuits that accuse them of copyright violations.
The TVUPlayer appears to have gained attention in the United States following the 2006 FIFA World Cup tournament in Germany. Thousands of soccer fans downloaded the software in order to watch matches not available on U.S. stations.
More importantly, TVU Networks has made watching online programming as easy watching a TV. After downloading the TVUPlayer, a menu appears with anywhere from 40 to 50 channels. Among the available channels available on Friday were Comedy Central, Animal Planet and the CNBC broadcast in India.
"Consumers will be able to watch free live channels from around the globe, as well as subscribe to pay channels and pay-per-view events," said a statement on TYUNetworks.com, the company's Web site. "TVU Networks brings you programs from around the world that you can't get from your local cable and satellite providers."
Blogs reporting on the TVUPlayer's popularity have noted the questions about the service's legality. Because TVU displays each broadcaster's commercials, some early reports have said TVU Networks is operating in a gray area of the law.
But some lawyers think the law is fairly clear-cut.
"What gray area? The courts have already decided that you can't do this," said Mark Litvack, a copyright attorney for the Los Angeles law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.
Litvack cited a 2000 U.S. district court decision that Canadian company iCraveTV was in violation of copyright law when it captured broadcast signals from the likes of ABC, NBC and CBS and retransmitted them over the Web. The company was forced to shut down.
According to Litvack, the case demonstrated that the courts don't care whether a service retransmits commercials. The most important factor in whether a site is operating legally is whether it has permission from content owners to be transmitting their material.
That said, if TVU Networks is found to be operating illegally, Hollywood may have a tough time going after the company in China, which has had a mixed record on protecting copyright.
Interestingly, instead of adding to the tension between the better-known video-sharing sites and Hollywood, boundary-pushing companies like TVU Networks may actually push them together, argued Josh Martin, an analyst with the Yankee Group.
"You shut down this site and another one will crop up," Martin said. "This tells entertainment executives that they have to create opportunity for consumers to legally access content. Most people will pay the $1.99 for the download or watch the commercial. They just need an opportunity to do that."
In recent weeks, a number of partnerships between sites and studios have been announced. Earlier this month, YouTube announced partnerships with Universal Music Group, Sony BMG Music Entertainment and CBS that let their artists' music and videos be included in original content posted on YouTube's site. Sony acquired Grouper for $65 million, and Warner Bros. cut deals with Guba, a video-sharing site, and BitTorrent, a file-sharing service that allows both to distribute Warner films.
In the meantime, the TVUPlayer's popularity continues to grow on sites such as CNET Network's own Download.com.
"It could be tough to stop these guys," said the Yankee Group's Martin. "(China) isn't known for being tough on copyright law."