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ReplayTV Battle Surges On

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NEW YORK -- Networks and studios, deeply suspicious of a device called ReplayTV 4000, a digital video recorder that lets TV viewers skip commercials, have obtained a court order to find out how consumers use the new technology.

The development marks the latest stage in the battle over emerging digital technologies that allow ad skipping, as well as quick and accurate copying of shows or movies. This round involves NBC, ABC, CBS, UPN and studios including Disney, Paramount, MGM, Universal and Columbia. All those companies have joined in a lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, that aims to stop sales of ReplayTV.

The $999 product, marketed by Santa Clara, Calif.-based SONICblue, allows users to eliminate commercials via an "AutoSkip" feature and send recorded programs to others over the Internet by using a "Send Show" option.

Both the AutoSkip and Send Show features violate copyright law, the studios and networks say in their suit. No trial date has been set.

Advertisers and agencies have spent the past several years exploring ways to counter the threat of "PVRs" -- personal video recorders -- or exploit any opportunities. The ad industry's accelerating drive to own content is widely considered a response to the threat posed by ReplayTV and similar devices.

"Advertisers will not pay ... when the advertisements will be invisible," the networks and studios say in court filings. ReplayTV rival TiVo in San Jose, Calif., lets users skip commercials, too, but they must do so manually. Unlike ReplayTV, TiVo has no facility for e-mailing shows.

SONICblue said it is merely helping people watch TV how they want. "If dodging commercials is against the law, you'd have to strap people in their chairs and snatch the remote out of their hands," said SONICblue attorney Laurence Pulgram.

SONICblue plans to appeal a magistrate's order on April 26 that the company collect data on how customers use the devices. The networks say that information would demonstrate the devices are used to infringe copyrights.

Digital video recorders are in about 1 million of the U.S.'s 98 million TV homes, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. TiVo boasts 380,000 subscribers, who buy machines from various manufacturers and pay a monthly fee. SONICblue, which does not charge a separate monthly fee, has sold about 100,000 units via direct order and is to move into retail stores in coming weeks, SONICblue chief technology officer Andy Wolfe said.