Suit filed over ReplayTV features

The Electronic Frontier Foundation files suit in federal court in Los Angeles against entertainment companies for the right to record TV programs and skip commercials.

3 min read
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is suing for your right to record TV programs and skip the commercials.

The online civil liberties group has filed suit in federal court in Los Angeles against more than two dozen entertainment companies on behalf of five consumers who own ReplayTV recorders, asking a judge to declare activities such as recording and fast-forwarding legal.

The complaint filed Thursday said court action is needed because an "Entertainment Oligarchy" made up of the networks and studios has repeatedly called consumers' use of the ReplayTV 400 "theft" and "stealing."

The plaintiffs hope their case will be consolidated with an earlier suit involving ReplayTV and will help bring the interests of consumers to the forefront in litigation. The major TV networks and movie studios have sued ReplayTV maker Sonicblue, alleging the device infringes their copyrights by letting people do things like skip commercials and send shows to other people who own the machine.

Attorney Ira Rothken, who's joining EFF in filing the suit, said there's a "need to reduce the personal apprehension and fear" ReplayTV users have that Hollywood studios will sue them over actions that previously have been legal.

Plaintiffs in the case include individuals who say they like to skip commercials during shows their children watch and record shows to watch at a later time or on another device.

Craig Newmark, one of the plaintiffs in the case and operator of the Craigslist.org online community, called his participation in the case an act of "community service."

"To oversimplify, the Hollywood lawyers are telling us that when we view TV, skipping commercials is a copyright violation...and it gets worse from there. Craig and others are telling them that this ain't okay," Newmark wrote in a letter to the Craigslist community in explaining his decision to join the suit.

Representatives from entertainment industry companies said they were reviewing the suit and would have a statement later Thursday.

EFF attorneys said the case deals with issues that are broader than just ReplayTV use. They're hoping a decision in their favor will chip away at some previous decisions that have eroded people's fair use rights. "It's time, frankly, that the users' voices be heard," EFF attorney Fred von Lohmann said.

The original ReplayTV suit already has caused a number of headaches for users of the device, including concerns the case could lead to privacy violations. Last month, a federal magistrate ordered Sonicblue to monitor its customers' viewing and recording habits, an action the company compared with spying. However, a judge overturned that decision amid an outcry from consumers and privacy advocates.

The latest suit is the second time in recent years that the EFF has sought court permission to perform a particular action. Last summer, the EFF helped Princeton professor Ed Felten seek court permission to give a talk on his research. Felten had earlier faced entertainment industry threats that caused him to back down from giving the talk on how his research team cracked protections on music. The entertainment industry said that it would violate certain copyright laws. In addition to getting permission for Felten to speak, the EFF also hoped to test the constitutionality of new Hollywood-backed laws designed to protect copyright in the digital age.

However, a judge dismissed the suit because entertainment industry companies said they had no plans to sue Felten.