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Dish, TV networks duel over ad-skipping feature

Fox and NBCUniversal file copyright infringement suits over the Auto Hop feature, leading the satellite carrier to fire back with a lawsuit of its own.

Dish's Auto Hop enable screen.

Dish Network and the major television networks are turning up the volume in their fight over a feature that allows viewers to skip commercials at the touch of a button.

Fox filed a lawsuit today in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to stop Dish from transmitting the network's programs in such a way that allows viewers to watch them without commercial interruptions. The lawsuit accuses Dish of copyright infringement and breach of contract.

"We were given no choice but to file suit against one of our largest distributors, Dish Network, because of their surprising move to market a product with the clear goal of violating copyrights and destroying the fundamental underpinnings of the broadcast television ecosystem," Fox said in a statement published by The Hollywood Reporter . "Their wrongheaded decision requires us to take swift action in order to aggressively defend the future of free, over-the-air television."

NBCUniversal quickly followed with a lawsuit of its own, filed in the same court, that seeks "preliminary and permanent injunctive relief against defendants' unlawful scheme to profit from an unprecedented and unauthorized new system for violating plaintiffs' copyrights in prime time network television programming."

"Dish simply does not have the authority to tamper with the ads from broadcast replays on a wholesale basis for its own economic and commercial advantage," NBCUniversal said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Dish filed a lawsuit today asking a Manhattan federal judge to declare that its Auto Hop feature "does not infringe any copyrights that could be claimed by the major networks, and that Dish, while providing the Auto Hop feature, remains in compliance with its agreements with the networks," the company said in a statement.

Dish's complaint claims the Auto Hop feature doesn't violate copyright because it does not alter the broadcast signal; viewers have the ability to skip the ads, but they are not deleted.

"Consumers should be able to fairly choose for themselves what they do and do not want to watch," David Shull, Dish senior vice president of Programming, said in a statement. "Viewers have been skipping commercials since the advent of the remote control; we are giving them a feature they want and that gives them more control."

The Auto Hop feature, which was introduced earlier this year as part of a high-definition DVR called the Hopper, uses ad-skipping technology that is embedded in the device. Once turned on, the technology will skip all the advertising that has been recorded on TV shows that air over broadcast TV channels. So far, Dish has limited the technology to broadcast TV channels only.

Broadcasters say the technology could destroy the industry since program owners need the advertising revenue to help cover the cost of their shows.

Dish co-founder and chairman "Charlie Ergen and Dish are a distributor of content," Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav said at a trade show earlier this week. "They need us to reach homes with our content. And if there is not going to be advertising fees, then there needs to be a lot higher subscriber fees."