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Technology: I want my MTV ... on my iPad!

April 1, 2011 |  4:45 pm

TWC iPad app Time Warner Cable's tussle with Viacom, News Corp. and other programmers over its iPad TV application is a great illustration of how meaningless differences in technology give rise to copyright disputes.

My colleague Joe Flint's latest dispatch on the dispute likens it to a clash of philosophies. The cable operator's new app let consumers who subscribed to Warner's cable and broadband services watch 32 channels of live TV on an iPad connected to their home network. The owners of a dozen of those channels objected, saying Warner's rights did not extend to the iPad.

Warner licenses programming in order to transmit it from the cable company's offices to viewers homes over its network of fiber-optic and coaxial cables. Those licenses don't restrict the number of set-top boxes the company puts into subscribers' homes, or the number of TVs its customers use to watch the shows.

Here's where things get interesting. The difference between delivering a program to an iPad and delivering it to a set-top box seems purely technical. For the former, Warner uses Internet Protocol to transmit digitized video over its cables on frequencies reserved for broadband traffic. (The customer's wireless router covers the last few feet of the transmission.) For the latter, it uses a technology called QAM (short for quadrature amplitude modulation) to transmit digitized video over its cables on the frequencies reserved for TV channels, although some other pay-TV services use Internet Protocol for those transmissions too.

In other words, Warner is sending the same programs to the same customers over the same fiber-coax system. There are differences in how the bits are delivered and protected against unauthorized copying, but neither is apparent to the consumer.

What's going on here bears not the slightest resemblence to the unauthorized, unlicensed video streaming services that broadcast pirated movies and TV shows around the globe. Instead, it reminds me of Cablevision's decision to move digital video recording from the set-top box to the central office -- a move that drew a lawsuit by the studios, but was upheld by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. And  Warner isn't pushing the edge of the copyright envelope nearly as hard as Cablevision did.

That's not to say that the networks have no beef with Warner. Viewers who watch shows on their iPads aren't likely to be included in the Nielsen ratings that help determine how much advertisers pay for TV spots. As nifty and shiny as an iPad may be, though, I find it hard to believe that anyone who could watch a show on their TV set would choose to do it on an iPad instead. Instead of cannibalizing conventional TV viewing, the iPad is probably adding to a show's audience by squeezing it into times and places it couldn't fit into before.

But that's just my guess. I also suspect that Nielsen, which already surveys iPad users and measures Internet TV viewing, will be adding iPad screens to its TV panels soon enough, and then we'll know for sure.


Time Warner Cable blinks first

News Corp. tells Time Warner Cable to pull its shows off the iPad

-- Jon Healey

Credit: Time Warner Cable website.

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