Networks, Studios, Sports Leagues Team Up Against Net Broadcaster

The Internet's video parallel to the controversial MP3 free-music phenomenon—currently being contested in US courts—quickly reached crisis proportions last week. A judge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ruled against iCraveTV.com, a Canadian startup that late last year began retransmitting Canadian and American TV programming over the Internet without permission. On January 28, the judge found in favor of a coalition of plaintiffs, including three of the four major television networks, several movie studios, the National Basketball Association, and the National Football League. At the moment, iCraveTV's site has a notice informing visitors that "access to stations and program listings is not available."

Programming offered by the site is copyrighted intellectual property, according to plaintiffs' attorneys. NFL game announcers make a point of reminding viewers at the end of every game that any rebroadcast requires explicit written permission from the league. iCraveTV has never obtained permission for football or any other content it supplies on its website, the lawyers successfully argued. The judge issued a temporary restraining order in time to prevent the Super Bowl from appearing on the Net. The Super Bowl is the biggest annual event on television.

"We're pleased with the court's decision," said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. His organization and the NBA are jointly suing iCraveTV for $5 million in damages. It's unclear how much effect US legal rulings will have on a company based in Canada, but at the moment iCraveTV is forbidden from transmitting US signals back into the States "via the iCraveTV.com site or any other Internet sites or any online facility of any kind."

Why anyone would want to watch Internet video at present is an unanswered question. With the bandwidth most consumers have, the resolution of moving pictures—as opposed to static photographs—is terrible, with frequent delays, interruptions, and disconnections. There is no doubt, however, that as technology improves, the Internet will be a dominant force in the distribution of entertainment, and a major threat to existing providers.

In 1999, iCraveTV began streaming content from TV stations on both sides of the border. The programs run uncut and uninterrupted, the company claims. iCraveTV claims it operates within the bounds of Canadian law, much like cable companies and satellite broadcasters, and promises to compensate all content providers for material used. The incident is part of a larger phenomenon of Internet companies treating intellectual property of all kinds—from news reports, books, and art works, to music and film—as natural resources free for the taking. Lawmakers in Ottawa and Washington will address the issue at length in the coming year.

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