Cablevision, the New York cable television provider, has lost a law suit laid by several studios and television networks against its proposed network-based digital video recorder. It represents a significant setback for operators hoping to deploy similar services. Cablevision is now considering an appeal.

Cablevision Systems Corporation had hoped to introduce its remote storage digital video recorder, or RS-DVR, to allow programmes to be recorded centrally. This would remove the requirement to provide individual digital video recorders to customers in their homes.

Subscribers would be allocated their own limited storage space on central Arroyo servers, allowing selected programmes to be stored indefinitely, with each customer retaining their own copy of a programme.

Hollywood studios and national television networks filed suits, arguing that the cable company did not have permission to “rebroadcast” recordings of their programmes. As a result, the roll-out of the proposed service was halted.

The case revolved around who was responsible for the act of copying. Cablevision argued that as consumers controlled of the recording and playback, its network-based storage was comparable to home video recorders.

A landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1984 in favour of Sony ruled that videocassette recorders did not infringe on copyright for domestic recording for personal use.

Other larger cable operators have been supportive and awaiting the outcome of the case with interest. It could enable them to offer digital recording features using centralised facilities with considerably lower operational costs.

However, the court agreed with the studios and networks, saying that in providing the service, the cable company rather than the consumer, was effectively copying the programmes.

Judge Denny Chin said: “I conclude that Cablevision, and not just its customers, would be engaging in unauthorised reproductions and transmissions of plaintiffs’ copyrighted programs under the RS-DVR.”

In his summary he said: “I agree with plaintiffs. The RS-DVR is clearly a service, and I hold that, in providing this service, it is Cablevision that does the copying.” He suggested that the RS-DVR is more akin to video on demand than a standalone video recorder. He also concluded that the playback amounted to an “unauthorised public performance” of the copyrighted works.

He found in favour of the rights holders, represented by Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, Paramount, Disney, CBS, NBC, CNN and Turner.

The judge ruled against Cablevision from operating the service without the appropriate licences from the studios. Costs but no damages were awarded.

Cablevision said that it is considering an appeal. “We are disappointed by the judge’s decision, and continue to believe that remote-storage DVRs are consistent with copyright law and offer compelling benefits for consumers — including lower costs and broader availability of this popular technology,” the company said in the statement. “We are currently reviewing the opinion and assessing all of our options, including an appeal, while we continue to deploy conventional set-top box DVRs.” Cablevision has rollout out around half a million devices to date.

Other operators around the world offer network based recording, with the agreement of programming providers. Inhibiting such features seems a short-sighted, as it has been seen to increase viewing.

It also increases the avoidance of advertising. However, with a centralised system, there is much more opportunity to monitor and adapt the presentation of commercials. Otherwise, viewers will simply record programmes by other means and the networks will lose any control, since home recording is already recognised as fair use.