January 20, 2000 12:00 PM PST

Broadcasters launch online TV legal war

U.S. companies today launched an all-out legal war against a Canadian online TV broadcaster, as representatives from movie studios, TV networks and sports leagues asked the courts to shut the company down.

iCraveTV, which launched early in December, shows uncut, uninterrupted streams of 17 broadcast television stations from the United States and Canada online. The firm offers one of the first Web sites to broadcast complete TV signals over the Internet in North America.

But the Canadian company Online TV may spark Net battle did not ask permission to broadcast its programming, and this quickly earned it enemies from many corners of the television world.

"The site is infringing on our rights," National Football League (NFL) spokesman Brian McCarthy said. "We must protect the integrity of our rights and broadcasts."

Today's lawsuits, filed today in Pittsburgh, follow a month of legal threats by broadcasters, TV stations and copyright holders in the United States and Canada.

The pending court cases mark some of the first skirmishes between old and new media companies over online video. U.S.-based Web companies currently are not allowed to broadcast TV signals, but a recent larger debate in Congress over satellite TV programming raised the issue with policymakers and U.S. television companies.

iCraveTV has consistently argued that Canadian law allows it to broadcast TV signals online, the same way that cable stations and satellite TV providers retransmit local stations. Company chief executive Bill Craig has said he wants to pay the broadcasters and copyright holders for the use of their programs, just as cable and satellite companies do.

U.S. interests say the company is violating U.S. copyright law, however.

In their lawsuit, the NFL and NBA charge that iCraveTV is "illegally transmitting copyrighted game telecasts over the Internet to computer users in the U.S." By "framing" the Web broadcasts with its own advertising, iCraveTV is also interfering with the leagues' exclusive contracts with network television providers, which depend on their own advertising revenue to pay for broadcasts, the suit says.

The NFL wants the court to force iCraveTV to stop showing its games immediately, before league playoff games broadcast this Sunday. Both the NFL and NBA are jointly seeking damages of $150,000 per broadcast--for a total of $5.4 million--as well as additional unspecified financial penalties.

Another separate lawsuit, filed by 10 movie studios and three TV networks, charges iCraveTV with "one of the largest and most brazen thefts of intellectual property ever committed in the United States," and asks the judge to shut the site down immediately.

"This is a clear and damaging case of theft," Motion Picture Association of America chief executive Jack Valenti said in a statement. "This kind of cyberspace stealing must be stopped, wherever it occurs, because it violates the principles of U.S. copyright law."

Parties to the MPAA-backed lawsuit include Twentieth Century Fox Film, Disney Enterprises, Columbia TriStar Television, Columbia Pictures Television, Columbia Pictures Industries, Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer Studios, Orion Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Universal City Studios, Time Warner Entertainment, ABC, CBS Broadcasting and Fox Broadcasting.

Individual television stations in Buffalo, N.Y., also part of iCraveTV's programming, say they haven't yet decided how to act.

"The stations are evaluating whether they want to join the networks lawsuit or file their own," said Tom Davidson, an attorney representing Granite Broadcasting, which owns Buffalo's ABC affiliate.

iCraveTV's CEO Craig said that his company was still reviewing the lawsuits, and would comment in detail once that process was finished. The company will defend itself in court, he added in a press release.

"iCraveTV believes it is acting in compliance with all applicable laws and will defend itself actively and vigorously," Craig said in a statement.

 

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