Friday, June 1, 2007

Technology vs. price discrimination

Sling Media has been making a cool box (the Slingbox) for several years for sending signals from your home TV tuner over the internet to your laptop on your business trip. I don’t travel consistently enough to pay for it (plus I’m cheap) but I always thought it was a cool idea and something I’d like to have. Instead, I just run the VCR when I’m traveling and catch up when I get home.

This week, Major League Baseball has threatened Slingbox with a lawsuit. Its gripe is that Slingbox (despite limited adoption) threatens its business of selling out-of-town TV rights (and potentially local blackouts).

The two sides don’t seem to have studied the same IP law. For the content owners:

“Of course, what they are doing is not legal,” MLB general counsel Michael Mellis told the publication.
versus the response from the Consumer Electronics Association:
“This is a classic instance of copyright owners trying to suppress innovation purely because it empowers consumers,” CEA President Gary Shapiro said in a statement. “There is no infringement or piracy here — consumers are simply watching content they lawfully purchase (or receive free over-the-air) in a different physical location.”
If I have the right to watch the SF Giants at my home in San Jose on a Saturday at 1pm, what are my other rights? Under Sony v. Universal (the Betamax case), I have a right to record it on a videotape and watch it at 4pm, or on Sunday, or the next week. Or to take that videotape with me to another town. Or — by extension — to record it on a hard disk and take it with me.

How is the Slingbox case different than taking a videotape with me? They’re both personal use — taking my legitimate right from my home to shift it in time (or space). There is always the question as to whether the facts are different enough to nullify existing precedent, e.g. whether the immediacy of watching a live sporting event (live in a different city) is different than ordinary time-shifting.

This dispute points out the whole problem of the global Internet colliding with IP rights being segmented/sold/licensed on a geographic basis. Apple uses IP addressees for its iTunes store, to make sure that download rights are mapped consistent with the nation-by-nation rights that the record companies have.

It’s up to a court to decide if MLB can use copyright law to protect its business model against new technologies. Certainly Pam Samuelson would fight to prevent the content owners from infringing on existing fair use precedents.

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1 comment:

James Ballard said...

Sounds like MLB wants to have more power over consumers (and their content, I suppose). Typical of companies who have a monopoly over their content and some new technology enables people to access it in ways unthought of by that company.

If NBC can adapt and allow many of their programs to be shown via the internet, then I'm sure MLB can figure out some similar strategy. Heck, NBC was fighting piracy and I don't think that the slingbox is piracy.