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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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