It’s common for new technology to press the boundaries of what’s permissible under current intellectual property laws or to challenge existing business models — or both — and Sling Media’s SlingBox is no exception. The futuristic looking device connects to a home’s TV signal (cable box, digital tuner or PVR) and then ‘slings’ that signal over a broadband connection to either a PC or cell phone, or in theory, any Internet connected device that can run the SlingPlayer software. While the ability to re-stream television for personal use is popular with customers, television networks and content producers aren’t so impressed.
How it works
Up to four live audio/video signals can be connected to a SlingBox, such as a cable set-top-box, satellite receiver, DVR, or other A/V source, so that they are then accessible over your home network or over the Internet. At the other end is the SlingPlayer software running on a Mac/PC or other device such as a smart phone, from which you’re enable to watch and control the signal from any of those set-top-box devices — such as play, change channel, pause, skip, rewind etc. The only restriction is that just one user can access the stream from a SlingBox at a time, in order to ensure that the device is for personal use only and not being used to share your TV signal with others on the Internet.
Place shifting vs delivery-shifting
Despite this ‘personal use only’ restriction, a number of media companies have voiced concerns about the device’s ability to re-stream their content — even going as far to question the SlingBox’s legality. Speaking at last year’s NAB conference in Las Vegas, HBO CTO Bob Zitter was quoted as saying, “content owners don’t like it because they think it violates their copyrights.” And most recently, the Major League Baseball’s media division has criticised the SlingBox.
“Moving content from one form of transmission to another certainly invites that kind of analysis,” said Bob Bowman, CEO of MLB.com… For instance, if a TV signal was converted into a radio signal, it might raise the eyebrows of those broadcasters involved. The SlingBox, he added, “is not a place-shifting device, (it) is a delivery-shifting device.”
The argument being that the SlingBox doesn’t just allow you to move your content from one place to another (such as ripping a CD onto your PC and transferring it to your mp3 player), but in actual fact is re-transmitting content in the face of local licensing agreements. This is a particularly thorny issue when it comes to live sports rights.
For example, a SlingBox customer has subscribed to cable so they can watch their local baseball team’s live televised matches. Then when they’re away from home (out of town or simply at the office), they can ‘sling’ that live feed over the net and onto their PC so that they never miss a game, and without having to re-purchase the same match from MLB.com. (Why would anybody want to pay for the same content twice?)
Countering the concerns of rights holders, Sling Media argues that the device is actually beneficial to content owners. At a Congressional hearing held last year, the company’s CEO Blake Krikorian stressed that the SlingBox neither records content nor distributes it to more than one end point at a time.
“I think for the cable company this is a great thing, I think a product like this is going to help drive their services,” Krikorian was quoted as saying.
The argument is that SlingBox adds value to a customer’s cable package by making it accessible to them for more hours of the day, even when they are away from home. Because of this, Kikorian says, the device actually helps to make local broadcasters relevant in an on-demand Internet connected age.