Dish Networks, the satellite TV provider, is being sued by Fox over its "AutoHop" feature, which automatically skips commercials. Fox alleges copyright infringement, which is a repeat of the claims over ReplayTV, which was bankrupted in similar lawsuits in the last decade. The networks claimed then that the whole program, including the commercials, were a single copyrighted work, and that by automatically enabling the skipping of certain sections, the device manufacturers were making derivative works. It's a really dumb theory of copyright and it's hard to imagine that it would hold up in court — and if it did, it would mean that, for example, allowing screen-in-screen, or changing aspect ratios, or even custom color balances or audio mixes were also copyright violations, and that these violations took place when the feature was enabled by the manufacturer (who would therefore be liable) and not when the customer turned them on.
A more likely claim from Fox is breach of contract — it's easy to believe that Fox put a "no skipping the commercials" line in their deal with Dish (and if they didn't, you can bet they will). Moreover, the DRM used in satellite receivers is controlled by the big rightsholders, and the license agreement for that DRM (much of which is a secret) allows them to demand arbitrary control over features in devices that can decode it.
Here's more from the LA Times and Meg James and Joe Flint:
Fox filed its copyright violation and breach-of-contract suit against Dish on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Dish filed its suit in U.S. District Court in New York.
"The suit asks for a declaratory judgment that the AutoHop feature does not infringe any copyrights that could be claimed by the major networks, and that Dish, while providing the AutoHop feature, remains in compliance with its agreements with the networks," the Englewood, Colo., company said in a statement.
While consumers with digital video recorders can fast-forward through commercials of recorded shows, Dish's AutoHop takes it a step further. The screen goes black when a commercial break appears. A few seconds later, the program returns. The service can't be used on live programming, such as a sporting event, even after it has been recorded.
With more than 14 million subscribers, Dish Network Corp.'s new technology may threaten the networks' ability to continue to charge premiums for their commercial time.