Time Warner iPad TV app drawing users -- and litigation

Media companies planning lawsuit over live channels streamed to subscribers' Apple tablets

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As technology evolves, two things inevitably happen: 1) New usage patterns emerge, and 2) Lawsuits get filed by players with either a vested interest in the status quo or a desire to cash in.

(Also see: How many iPad 2s did Apple sell in debut?)

Such is the case with Time Warner's free new iPad application designed to allow subscribers of the cable provider to live-stream 32 channels onto their tablet devices in their homes. So popular was the app when it debuted last week that Time Warner temporarily had to reduce the number of available channels by about half to ease the burden on its servers.

Variety's Andrew Wallenstein reports:

Time Warner Cable is facing litigation from at least one of Hollywood's majors in a matter of days over its iPad app that transmits live TV channels within a subscriber's home, according to a programming executive with knowledge of the situation.

"I think it's just days away," said the source, who added that Time Warner Cable is no longer in discussions with programmers. "If we allow this without litigation, everyone will do it tomorrow. If we litigate, we have a chance to win."

"If we litigate, we have a chance to win." Besides being a copyright violation of Microsoft's corporate slogan, that sentence misses the larger point: The convergence of media platforms cannot be stopped. If something can be streamed to a device, it will be. Does anyone really think a lawsuit is going to force the genie back in the bottle?

Indeed, as Variety reports, Cablevision is preparing an iPad app "that goes a step further than Time Warner by making a subscriber's entire channel package -- including broadcast networks, VOD and content stored on DVR -- available on the app."

Wow. Cablevision may as well call it the "Television Programmers Attorney Employment App," because that one's going to draw litigation like porn stars to a Charlie Sheen coke party.

The programmers claim the Time Warner iPad app violate their contracts with the cable provider, which they say restricts Time Warner's broadcast rights to "cable television."

But Melinda Witmer, chief programming officer for Time Warner Cable, insisted to the Wall Street Journal that the company is legally allowed to transmit TV channels to any device in the home, provided the signals are routed through Time Warner's network and equipment, rather than the "open Internet." In other words, a Time Warner subscriber wouldn't be able to sit in his local coffee shop and watch Larry the Cable Guy's new show on The History Channel (and even if he could, the shame and ridicule would be too much to bear).

The WSJ quotes Witmer:

"We don't define in our contracts what a viewing device is, because technology has always been evolving," she said. "I don't know what a TV is anymore. It's kind of an anachronistic term."

It's far more likely that the pending lawsuits are less about stopping the inevitable and more about forcing Time Warner to pay programmers larger subscription fees.

Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.

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