WATCH TV VIA THE INTERNET?
From Diana J. Choyce
Mar 13 - 26, 2000
As internet connection speeds get faster and more consistent, many companies are looking to broadband services to entertain us. We have come a long way from the early midi files that we loved so much. Audio and visual files are now easily streamed, although the quality still needs some refinement. And of course, many companies are looking for ideas and applications to profit from this. One such company has brought this subject to the forefront, and taken plenty of heat for it. Late last year, iCraveTV began streaming 17 channels, including ABC, CBS, NBC, and Canada's CBC, over the Internet. However, The North American Broadcasters Association (representing 37 networks and broadcasters in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico) and the National Football League both vowed to take iCraveTV to court if it continued its service. It would seem another case of the big guy against the little guy was taking root over profits. And this case will probably be the first among many such battles between broadcasters and the new media companies.
At the heart of the issue is whether iCraveTV was violating broadcasters' copyrights by carrying programming on its Web site. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters promptly filed a cease-and-desist order against iCraveTV, ordering it to stop "unlawfully streaming broadcasters' signals through their Web site. "ICraveTV.com isn't playing by the rules," said Michael McCabe, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, in a prepared statement. "They have neither sought nor obtained permission to use our signals." "ICraveTV is acting similar to someone who has stolen your car and called you up a day later and says, now I will negotiate a selling price," responds Bill Roberts, secretary general of the North American Broadcasters Association.
Bill Craig, iCraveTV president, stood defiant in the face of the looming legal action. "Why should we stop broadcasting?" Craig asked. Craig argues that Canadian cable and satellite companies pay the Canadian Royalty Tribunal to carry U.S. signals, which in turn distributes over $40 million in funds to U.S. broadcasters and program rights holders. Craig says he's willing to pay broadcasting tariffs to rebroadcast programming over the Net, but until such a tariff exists, it would be business as usual. Craig's setup was rather simple as he had only to put up an ordinary TV antenna 60 miles from the New York/Ontario border to pick up the feed. The company then simply funneled the signal through its Web site. ICraveTV had a security system on its site designed to keep U.S. viewers out. To gain access to iCraveTV one would enter a Canadian area code. Both the NFL and the NABA called that security measure a "joke." Because iCraveTV shrinks the picture and wraps its own advertising around the video feed, broadcasters say iCraveTV is violating copyright laws by altering the broadcast image. The broadcasts are not exactly picture-perfect streaming, and the quality ranges from excellent to poor. Craig says quality depends on available Net bandwidth. iCraveTV was offering service optimized for people who connect to the site with 56K modems and a 128KB stream for broadband surfers. It supported both Microsoft's Media Player and Real Networks' RealPlayer. The revenue was to be generated from selling advertising that runs along the bottom of the video image. Faced with a loss of his revenue, and standing on principal Craig said, "I've got a lot of personal skin tied up in this. I'm not going to give up without a fight."
However bravely Craig stood up to the pressure, he finally conceded defeat this past month. He was sued in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh and in a Canadian court and agreed not to rebroadcast American TV programming to audiences in the United States without permission. Under the settlement, iCrave has agreed to "never again engage in the illegal streaming of television signals into the U.S. via the Internet," the MPAA said in a statement. The MPAA stressed in the statement that the copyright suit against iCraveTV was not meant to be an attack on the Internet in general. Michael McCabe, president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, said the settlement signals that the rights of copyright holders and creators cannot be ignored. The Canadian broadcasters who sued iCraveTV included the government-financed Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Global TV and TVOntario, and the provincial education broadcaster. The iCrave company asserted that the rebroadcasts were legal under Canadian law, but the plaintiffs, including Disney, MGM, Paramount and ABC, CBS and Fox called the Web site one of the largest and most brazen thefts of intellectual property evercommitted. Craig has said it was never his intention that the broadcasts would be picked up by viewers using computers in the United States. NABA's
Roberts has said that "to be fair to iCraveTV, it is breaking new ground and raising issues that are only at the tip of the iceberg in a new era of broadcast and Web services."