Software allows viewers to copy web content

RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser fired the opening shot Wednesday in what could become a new battle between tech companies and content owners.

Demonstrating a forthcoming version of his company’s RealPlayer software, Glaser showed how the new software could grab video from most Web sites and allow viewers to watch it later on their PC, transfer it to an iPod, or burn it to a DVD.

Calling to mind Sony’s earliest demonstrations of the Betamax videotape recorder, Glaser illustrated how the software works by pulling a David Letterman interview with Kevin Spacey from the CBS.com Web site. “We’re enabling consumers to enjoy digital entertainment whenever and wherever they want,” Glaser said, speaking at the Digital Hollywood conference in Santa Monica. The new software is scheduled for release later in June. Glaser said this was only his second public demo of the software.

“This is aiding and abetting piracy,” fumed one network exec, who requested anonymity. “We make our content available on our site for viewing on demand, and if people want to download and own that content, they can buy it through iTunes, or they can buy the DVD.”

This exec said he has been talking with “all of the major media companies about what our response is going to be.”

Asked if legal action against RealNetworks is a possibility, this exec replied, “More likely than not.”

Up until now, consumers have dealt with various restrictions that prevented them from watching online content while not connected to the Internet, or viewing it on a portable device. And media companies have expected that when a consumer wants to watch a piece of content a second time, he or she will return to the media company’s site, where the traffic can be tallied and advertising can be displayed.

RealPlayer, along with new software on the way from Adobe and some software already being offered by smaller companies, could upend those assumptions.

Glaser emphasized during his presentation on Wednesday that the RealPlayer 11 software would provide media companies with certain benefits: downloaded video retains its advertising (though users can skip past it), and when users of RealPlayer want to share a piece of video with a friend, that friend is directed to the original Web site hosting the video.

“Consumers clearly want to take their media with them,” said Josh Felser, co-president of Grouper, a video site owned by Sony Pictures.

“And right now, there’s a very uneven experience across the Web: some sites have download capabilities, and some don’t.” He said RealPlayer might create a “unified experience,” helping consumers organize and watch content from a large number of Web sites, on their own terms.

But Felser acknowledges that not all media companies will like it.

In an interview with Variety on Wednesday, Glaser said his company had already discussed the new software with representatives of CBS, NBC, Google, and the BBC, and that he hoped to open a dialogue with other companies.

But he acknowledged, “There were a few people who didn’t understand it, and some percentage of those will react defensively.” Glaser is a former Microsoft exec who founded RealNetworks in 1993. The Seattle company helped pioneer the use of audio and video on the Web.

Glaser contended that there would be ways for media companies to bar their video from being downloaded, by employing digital rights management (DRM) software, and that if RealNetworks generated any additional advertising through its player, he would be open to sharing that with media companies. But he said it was unlikely that RealNetworks would share data with media companies about how viewers were using the software.

But even if media companies can prevent the software from grabbing the goods from their own sites, when Internet users illicitly post televised content to sharing sites like YouTube, they most likely won’t switch on the same DRM software.

For content downloaded from YouTube, the network exec said, the new RealPlayer “allows you to own it forever on your hard drive, even if the Web site that distributed that content illegally has taken it down in because we’ve complained.”

“I think the primary purpose of the VCR was personal use,” said the network exec. “I think the primary purpose of RealPlayer is piracy.”

Glaser defended the software, contending, “What we’ve created is as legal as the VCR, as legal as a PVR [personal video recorder], as legal as a Xerox machine.”

Media companies may not feel the same way. And the clash could be intense, once the new version of RealPlayer is released later this month: Glaser says that customers download about 1.5 million copies of the software every day.

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