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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

An Emerging Issue: Capturing and Storing Flash Video

Think back to the 1970s (if you're old enough): there was no way to capture and replay anything that aired on TV. When Sony's Betamax videocassette recorder was introduced, media companies got a little upset. Two of them, Universal and Disney, sued Sony all the way to the US Supreme court to keep people from recording shows and movies off the air. (They lost.)

A new version of RealNetworks' RealPlayer software is beginning to spark a similar conflict: it allows you to store and later play back any of the Flash video you encounter on the Web. (Flash is the format used on YouTube, Brightcove, and many other sites, intended to stream content to your computer temporarily -- but not allow you to store it. Flash is most likely the dominant format in which video is delivered online today.) RealPlayer allows you to create a personal playlist made up of any of the video you encounter on the Web, whether it's in the Flash, Windows Media, QuickTime, or Real formats. The tagline is: "Find the Web video you want -- and Real it in." (Of course, there is already software like Tubesock that allows you to store's just not marketed by a company as big as RealNetworks.)

Some of the debate over capturing Flash (and the other formats) has been playing out on Andy Plesser's Beet.TV site. Here's a post headlined, 'It's War: Brightcove's Jeremy Allaire Says New ReadlNetworks Video Player is Illegal Piracy.'

Adobe, which developed the Flash video format, and is working on a software program of its own to allow Flash video to be stored and managed, isn't wild about the new RealNetworks player, either.

And here's an Information Week article on some of the legal implications.

Two of the big issues media companies worry about: if users can store and replay Flash and other formats, how can we keep tabs on how many times our content is being played? And, secondarily, if that's content that we're hoping to support by integrating advertising, how can we insert new advertising every time it is played if the content is being stored and played back with software we don't control?

This is going to be a hotly-debated area for the next couple years, but something tells me that media companies might have to concede that with digital video, not every play is going to be trackable, and not every play is going to present a fresh opportunity to insert ads ..... just as was the case with the VCR when you recorded that episode of "Diff'rent Strokes" and watched it over and over again.

When I hear Jeremy Allaire of Brightcove using the words "illegal piracy" to describe what the new RealPlayer is doing, I hear echoes of the way that Universal execs Lew Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg (and later, MPAA chief Jack Valenti) responded to the VCR.

Your thoughts?

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