Sony’s “Location Free TV”: Any Copyright Issues?

by on November 13, 2006

I’ve been neglecting my blogging over the past week since my free time has been occupied with setting up my latest high-tech toy–Sony’s “Location Free TV.” To keep pace with the increasingly popular Slingbox, which also allows consumers to space- or place-shift their TV and other video signals, Sony has just released a new box (the LP-20) that retails for $250 bucks and has more features than their first generation Location Free boxes. As I was setting it up and troubleshooting various connection problems (and I had quite a few), I kept wondering about whether or not this new Sony device would raise any copyright issues.

Like the Sling, Sony’s Location Free box allows you to watch your home TV signals on your personal computer anywhere you want via an Internet connection. An added bonus with the Sony box is the ability to also watch TV remotely on your PlayStation Portable (PSP) gaming device. It’s a very cool feature but my experience with it so far has been a mixed bag. The PSP suffers from more latency issues (probably due to its more limited wireless networking capabilities) and picture quality really becomes unbearable at times as a result.

But watching TV remotely on my laptop looks pretty good and the desktop software that Sony provides makes it very easy to program in my cable set-top box codes and special buttons (like the button I use to call up my PVR archive so I can watch recorded TV shows while I’m on the road). And I can also use the Location Free box to control another video source, such as my DVD player. So, when I’m stuck in an airport trying to keep my kids from melting down, I can remotely access an animated movie sitting in my DVD tray back home. Very, very cool.

These place-shifting capabilities make the Sony Location Free TV system a consumer’s dream. But do those same capabilities give rise to any copyright issues? I wondered about this in an essay I penned about the Slingbox back in February.

I didn’t really have any good answers in that piece and I don’t here either. But in that piece I suggested that if a lawsuit was filed against Sling that the company would likely mount a fair use defense based on the old Sony Betamax decision that held consumers already have the right to time-shift programming via various devices. Sling would likely argue that, by logical extension, consumers should also have a corresponding “right” to place-shift their programming even though the Betamax case was not dealing with that issue. Moreover, Sling would also likely argue that consumers already engage in place-shifting when we make a VHS or DVD copy of television programming and then take it with us to watch somewhere outside the home.

I don’t know if the courts would buy these arguments but the lawyers inside of Sony must be thinking along these same lines if they gave the green light to their Location Free TV boxes. Sony is a very interesting company, with half the beast devoted to producing consumer electronics and the other half devoted to producing entertainment. Few other companies are as highly vertically integrated in that regard. So there must be some really interesting internally business meetings between the electronics and entertainment divisions when it comes to issues like copyright law! [A few years ago, Wired’s Frank Rose penned a nice article about these internal tensions entitled “The Civil War Inside Sony.”]

Apparently the lawyers on consumer electronics side of the Sony house won this particular argument. Or perhaps they convinced the guys on the copyright side of Sony that the Location Free technology included adequate safeguards to prevent serious unauthorized uses / video redistribution. For example, the LP-20 box I’m using only allows one device to be connected to it at a time; either my laptop or my PSP but not both. Also, when I tried to load the Location Free player software onto another computer in my home, it could not be registered with the Location Free box. If you want to add another computer to your home network, Sony requires that you purchase (for $30) and register another copy of its Location Free player software. So I couldn’t just pass along my Location Free software to everyone in my office and let them share my video feeds remotely.

Those two steps make it virtually impossible for anyone to share their home video signals with others via the Net, something that would clearly represent unauthorized distribution. But what about those personal place-shifting uses? Some in the broadcast industry have already suggested that even those personal uses might not be legitimate.

Wouldn’t it be ironic, therefore, if Sony ended up back in court and built its defense around the old Sony Betamax decision! Again, I don’t have any idea how it would all come out, but it sure would be an interesting battle. I’m interested in hearing what others think.

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