Hollywood studios and the National Football League are seeking to block the maker of the popular TiVo television recorder from expanding its service so that users could watch copies of shows and movies on devices outside their homes.
In filings with the Federal Communications Commission, the organizations say the new technology could compromise the copyrights of shows that broadcasters send over the airwaves in digital form, which offers much higher sound and video quality than what viewers typically get today.
The organizations fear that computer enthusiasts would capture those programs and begin trading them online in the same way that millions of music files are shared daily, which record companies have said has cut into their profit. TiVo Inc. insists its system will not allow such mass Internet distribution.
The battle is one of several being waged in federal agencies and on Capitol Hill this summer, as content companies such as the movie and music companies seek to keep control of copyrighted works that increasingly can be digitally stored, copied, manipulated and distributed by users. In turn, several public advocacy groups and technology companies warn that the content companies are trying to revoke long-standing consumer rights to "fair use" of artistic works.
With 1.6 million subscribers, TiVo is the leading provider of the digital recorders that are revolutionizing television viewing. In addition to copying shows for later viewing, consumers can pause live shows, skip commercials and use other features to control the TV experience.
To date, users generally have been unable to send copied programs to another device, although some digital recorders include "burners" that allow programs to be copied to a DVD and played elsewhere.
TiVo wants to make copies more portable, in stages. Sometime this fall, the company plans to roll out a system that will allow programs to be transferred from the TiVo box to a computer via a small device attached to the PC.
The program could then be sent to other devices within the home and viewed on them. Such devices, including laptops or desktop computers, would be registered with the company and would share encoding and decoding technology that prevents viewing by nonregistered devices.
Next year, TiVo plans to expand the system to allow programs to be transferred to registered devices outside the home, such as at an office, vacation cabin or even a friend's house across the country. A maximum of 10 devices could be registered by the subscriber.
"TiVo has an interest in keeping everything secure," said its Washington attorney, James M. Burger. "We are trying to bring innovation to consumers."
But the system alarms the content industry, which promised to roll out more digital programming over free television networks only after insisting that the FCC adopt rules requiring makers of recording devices to certify that they have technologies to prevent mass Internet distribution.
Digital programming is far more appealing for online distribution because the quality does not degrade as it is copied over and over.
TiVo was one of 13 companies that asked the FCC for approval, arguing that its copy-protection system met the requirements. The Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood's lobbying arm, and the NFL then filed objections to TiVo's plan.
"Our concern is grounded in the fact that the remote access is not limited to the recipient's summer home or boat or office," said Fritz Attaway, the MPAA's Washington legal counsel. "The people that can receive the programming can be totally unrelated in any place on the globe."