No one denies that streaming is the future for watching videos.  But you can’t stream Netflix–or any online video–without an Internet connection.  Moreover, some video streams are time-sensitive.  For instance, the free version of Hulu may allow you to view only the most recent episodes of your favorite TV show.  But MediaMall Technologies wants you to be able to watch your online shows and movies whenever you want.  For $5 a month (or $50 a year), PlayLater will record the videos you want to stream and stores it on your computer so that you can watch them later on Windows Media Player.  So, if you’re too busy to keep up with Modern Family or you want to watch it in the car, PlayLater is your online DVR.  (Sorry, Macs.  PCs only right now.)

I was not alone in my initial reaction: is this really legal?  PlayLater thinks so.  It answers the legality question on its own website, as follows: “Yes.  PlayLater is technology designed to let individuals watch legal online content whenever and wherever they like.  Just like the broadcast DVR and VCR before it, PlayLater is designed for personal use and convenience.”  Chief Executive Jeff Lawrence elaborated, “There is a well-established legal precedent that consumers are allowed to record videos for time-shifting viewing.”  DVR and VCR recording is time-shifting viewing.

Because of the legality issue, PlayLater has several restrictions on the way it operates.  PlayLater will not record a video from anywhere on the Internet.  Subscribers may only record from legal websites supported by the software, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant, Comedy Central, ESPN3, and CBS (although there is the potential for adding third-party plugin “channels”).

Moreover, PlayLater records the video in real-streaming time.  If The Good Wife runs for 50 minutes on CBS because of ad time, you will need 50 minutes to record it.  But you will be able to fast-forward through ads when you watch later.  Your viewing quality will also be the same quality you would normally get when watching a streaming video–clear with a smaller picture and grainy with a larger one.  Thus, PlayLater is not like downloading a torrent file off the Internet.

Nevertheless, PlayLater’s belief in its own legality does not mean that there won’t be a lawsuit.  Radha Subramanyam, a Nielsen executive, says that there is a growing number of people streaming, especially among young adults.  The time each individual streams is on the rise, too.  Subramanyam says that Netflix subscribers averaged 8.5 hours of streaming last June.

Intellectual property and technology lawyer Denise M. Howell states, “If the streaming sites [like Netflix and Amazon] let this go, ignoring it, they will irritate the people who provide the content.”  And as Netflix’s recent problems demonstrate, appeasing the content providers can come at a high price.  Streaming sites may, in response, try to block the PlayLater software, as Viacom has blocked Google TV from streaming The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

PlayLater may need to anticipate a court battle, after all.

– Whitney Boshers

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4 Responses to PlayLater: The New (Legal?) Online DVR

  1. Whitney says:

    Ian, I agree with you that Hulu has been more creative about ad placement. I love the upfront ad. Even if I don’t end up watching the nearly two-minute ad, Hulu usually asks me to pick one ad out of three to watch. The act of choosing means that I can’t entirely ignore the product being advertised! Plus, I’ve usually got more goodwill about watching the ad then because I know I’m going to get to watch my 20-minute comedy without any more breaks.

    If this service turns out to be feasible and useful, I would enjoy it. I would try almost anything so that I could cancel my cable subscription. But, as TV stands now, you cannot get rid of cable if you like to watch sports. But ESPN3 simply doesn’t show enough games right now. Besides sports, I rely on my DVR a lot, but I would be willing to use a service like this that catalogued my shows for me, especially considering my computer screen is nicer than my television screen currently.

    Until cable packages let you “have it your way” by picking and choosing what channels and services you want, I will be severely unhappy with my cable provider.

  2. Ian Quin says:

    I agree with your sentiments, Megan and Kevin. Regarding consumers being less inclined to purchase DVDs of shows due to the viewing options provided by PlayLater, I think that scenario depends on the type of consumer we are considering. For the cash-strapped individual who merely wants to be able to watch many missed shows at a fixed price, the argument holds sway. However, television produces have been good about packaging additional content into DVDs (deleted scenes, commentary tracks, etc) to give consumers good reason to shell out hard earned money for them. I think if anything PlayLater is upping the ante for content providers and incentivizing them to be good to their audiences.

    As for lost ad revenue, I think networks need to realize that there is more than one way to package advertising. Hulu is a good example. Hulu provides audiences with multiple “viewing experiences” from which to receive advertising–e.g. audiences can choose to view ads at fixed points throughout a show or watch an extended ad up front.

  3. Kevin Lumpkin says:

    This is definitely interesting. Megan, I think your reaction comes from the idea that with their streaming content, networks have a lot of control over ads – they can force you not to skip over them. But wasn’t that once true for all TV? Until the VCR (and TiVo and DVR), you couldn’t record TV shows and then fast forward through the commercials. I’m not sure how network lawyers would distinguish this service from a VCR or from TiVo, both of which have been found not to be infringing.

  4. Megan LaDriere says:

    Whitney, great post! This service seems tempting for my own personal use, especially when I’m a little behind on a show and Hulu only keeps the most recent five episodes. I agree with PlayLater that there is a strong case based on the VCR and time-shifting precedent, but how far will courts let this go? If we miss a show on television, networks already provide streaming options. If we somehow miss the available streaming we can record it to watch at an even later date. Sounds like content producers are about to miss out on a whole lot of revenue – who is ever going to buy seasons of a television show on DVD anymore after this?