Internet-based ivi TV faces off in David vs. Goliath fight with Big Broadcasting

Jim O'Neil

There's nothing that makes for better reading than a basic David vs. Goliath story, and the fight that's brewing between over-the-top "cable operator" ivi TV and Big Broadcasting is a classic example.

Last week, the little service (it launched with less than $1 million in financing, almost all from small angel investors), began oploading broadcast signals from stations in New York and Seattle, as well as a handful of other independents and stations from around the world, on the Internet at ivi.tv, promising always-on streaming live television.

So far, it's been as promised. You can watch ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, Telemundo and all the rest on PCs, most connected TVs and, soon, the company says, on the iPad... it's just waiting for approval of its app from Apple.

Of course, soon after launching--two days to be exact--the cease and desist letters from the legal departments at the networks began to arrive. But, rather than duck and run, ivi founder and CEO Todd Weaver fired back at the broadcasters with a filing in U.S. District Court, saying the company is operating under a U.S. Copyright Law provision that "expressly authorizes secondary transmissions of copyrighted works embodied in primary transmissions." Weaver said that, since it is paying the licensing fees laid out according to the Register of Copyrights, it's in compliance with the law.

In a phone interview yesterday, Weaver--sounding a little worse for wear after just a week of operations--told me the brouhaha is more basic than the complex copyright infringement the broadcasters are claiming.

"We knew going into this that history was going to repeat itself," he said. "When cable started out, they were sued. The Supreme Court has ruled that retransmission isn't copyright infringement. Then, the satellite industry was sued. They eventually were defined as a cable system. Now, it's our turn. We've received our cease and desist letters. They have our response."

"It's not about copyright infringement," he said, "it's about competition."

Weaver said that the consumer uptake has been steady, and that feedback has been very good.

And, he said, a number of content providers, including one very large group from overseas, is working on launching with ivi TV.

"Look, TV Everywhere has been a complete failure because all the contracts have to be gutted and reworked in order to distribute online. Content owners want their content out there, but they want it to be protected and they want to be paid for it," he said. "We're on their side, and we can get their content out there, safe, and in a way it can be monetized."

He said ivi was committed to paying broadcasters for their content, just as cable and satellite operators do, and he was intent on adding channels (L.A. stations are expected to be online in about a month) and on innovating; in fact, he said, the service was upgrading from standard to enhanced definition this week.

"People keep bringing up iCraveTV, and comparing us to Napster," he said, referencing a web-based TV offering that came and went in 1999 and the popular music site. "iCrave wasn't a cable system and it didn't comply with the copyright laws. We're not doing anything illegal; we're doing it the right way and we'll pay the applicable fees."

ivi TV's fight against Big Broadcasting is a classic underdog battle, and it's one that's familiar to anyone in the online video industry. The company is a threat to the established order, and it's taking a path that pay-TV providers can't, they're not nimble enough... at the moment.

The original story that ran on ivi's launch generated a ton of comments, from those who saw the play as the first move in an inevitable revolution in how we watch TV and how it's paid for to, well, some that had to be deleted because of the intensity of their opposition (note to anonymous: no, that's physically possible for me to do, but thanks for the suggestion). The story's still evolving, as is the online video space. And, despite the growth and acceleration of our industry, we're still just a bunch of David's fighting that big, bad Goliath. -Jim

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