Is using broadcast TV signals subject to licensing?

July 9, 2007 by Dave Haynes

A few years back, I pulled together a network that had the partnership backing of a very large Japanese electronics firm. It was a great deal because, among other things, they wanted things lawyered every which way they could think of … on their nickel.

Being a start-up, me and my partner couldn’t afford to even sit in a law office lobby, so all this caution was welcomed.

One thing that came up was the whole idea of inserting live TV broadcasts inside a digital signage screen zone. The $500/hour opinion from the intellectual property lawyers was that as along as the signal was not compromised (like the adverts replaced or banners overlaid), inserting the video inside a zone was just peachy.

We were talking about this recently, and I was getting differing opinions — suggestions that the signals actually had to be licensed from the broadcasters. That would be costly, and maybe more so, a HUGE pain in the butt.

So I am curious what the experience has been with other industry folks. We’ve not really done live TV here, but I know for some companies in this space it’s a big part of the offer.

What’s been your experience or point of view on this?

  1. Bill Gerba says:

    We’ve had clients ask about this feature for years, and our stand has been to avoid it. In fact, there was a recent court case about it. I blogged on it a few months back… ah, here’s the link:

    My layperson’s interpretation of the law supposedly being violated is that if you want to show somebody else’s TV signal in your place of business, you can’t do anything to the signal that the typical, average person at home couldn’t do himself. Granted, things like TiVo make that clause much harder to interpret, but I get the feeling that most major networks don’t like the idea of you taking their (ad-funded) signal and ditching the ads so you can insert your own.

    I’m not a lawyer, and not at all qualified to give legal advice, but it just feels a bit like stealing to me.

  2. Rob Gorrie says:

    Beyond my stance that content from TV doesn’t work in this space, I’ll add one to this to make it an even stickier topic.

    Side by sides and exclusives….if you’re rebroadcasting ESPN in a smaller window of the screen and they have a Ford Ad on the screen and then you play an add from GM in another area, it’s a violation of advertising contracts. You’ve got two conflicting advertising contracts sold on different mediums in the same space. No Brand will stand for this type of behaviour and it demonstrates immaturity in the space….lots of lawsuits to follow 🙂

    On the licensing side of things, I’m with Bill…avoid this type of approach. My personal take would be that either the Networks themselves or the independant cable operators will look to this (lawsuits) as a revenue opportunity and profit center once the space gets bigger

  3. Dave Haynes says:

    There are some companies who are/were blatantly monkeying with broadcast signals, using a sniffer to recognize commercial beaks and swap network TV ads for the signage companies own ads. THAT goes way over the line.

    But if you are not affecting the network broadcast, are you really violating anything. Like I said, the expensive lawyers thought not … at least that was the case in 2003 when I last though about this for more than a minute.

    Anybody who has read my nonsense for a while knows I think split screens in digital signage are, generally, a recipe for commercial failure. So live TV inserts makes little sense to me (or Rob).

    However, I suspect many of us have clients who want the ability to cut over from marketing messages to live TV the next time there is a big global event that, as the old hippie chant goes, the whole world is watching.

    I can’t see CNN or the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) squawking about that. Well … maybe the CBC.

  4. Bill Gerba says:

    I’m inclined to agree, Dave. If you’re cutting over from the “regular” digital signage content to a TV signal that takes up the entirety of the screen, it seems like you would be in accordance with the “homestyle exemption” that the Flying J network may be violating.

    Of course, there could be other laws/regulations being broken as well. Don’t know anything about that. Bottom line: if you need some security on the matter, talk to an IP attorney.

  5. Stephen says:

    The murky world of broadcast rights is not keeping up with the digital signage space, just like it was and is with online.

    My clients would probably like to be able to switch to live broadcast if possible. But who says now and why?

    If you are a big box retailer tying to empty the final skid of the last month’s best selling SKU, do you want to ad hoc decide if Paris Hilton’s next ride to the big house merits your customers attention instore? Let alone pay somebody to air the content.

    And who pay the brand’s make good on the ad play after Paris is off air?

    Bill is right… avoid it for now. I hope smarter tools are coming soon.

  6. Funny that you should mention the CBC, Dave, as they had issues with us broadcasting the CBC Newsworld “top-of-the-hour” newscast on our screens while I was managing a network for a western-based telco.

    Their main issue was that certain news stories were licensed by the CBC under very strict rules from 3rd parties and as such there were legal issues around us broadcasting the content, even in an unadulterated fashion. In the early days of our network, before we moved away from using their content, they used to encode and send us high bit rate Windows Media clips of stories that they did have the rights to that we scheduled for playback. It was a tad cumbersome.

    Time will tell.

  7. David Ellis says:

    Very interesting topic. I always seem to get confused when I hear about TV or even full-on video being aired on a “digital signage network” , it seems like that would just be another narrowcast video network….maybe not if done properly and the dwell is decent…

    From what I read a while ago there were several cases in court in 05 and 06 in which the broadcast industry and the FCC were looking at adopting “a broadcast flag” that would be embedded in the programming I believe-this was directed at Digital Television. If I am not mistaken in no way can you rebroadcast any thing that has been broadcast…which does not apply since this is narrowcasting. I am certain most any broadcaster would be upset; since they rely on ratings and there is no way presently to measure additional viewers of their network it would really get them fired up…they would most likely let a small network slide….but similar to HD radio I think in the near future we will hear a lot more about this from the FCC and broadcasters…think about it-if you are using programing that you are not paying for and you are promoting to national brands you will be done and quick as there is enough money in broadcasting to buy all of the current digital signage ad space available as of today. My thoughts…..

  8. Ian Gadsby says:

    Love the legal debates! Consider other similar situations:

    Is taking somebody’s newsfeed with out permission a crime? Yes.
    Is using sports ticker data without permission a crime? Yup.

    TV programming is no different. Broadcasters pay millions to obtain those exclusive rights, so unless your showing it full screen, out of the kindness of your heart (which makes little sense to me anyway) you’ve altered their signal ‘without express written consent of the owner.’

    Andrew’s right about news too- CBC can charge upwards of 6-figures annually for those news segments.. they don’t like giving them away- so a very valid point.

    I think the answer is ‘BUSTED’ on this one. Weather it’s ENFORCED or not is a different story.

    (And I take offense to the multi-region displays don’t work comment… 🙂 )

  9. Steve Miller says:

    My perspective may be biased because prior to entering the digital signage industry, I spent what seems like a lifetime creating television networks. Bottom line, this content is not your own, you do not have the right to rebroadcast it publicly in any fashion and I’m certain that the court ruling would favor the owner of the original content. What is not mentioned here is that what you really want is quality content for low/no cost. Like Rob and others I truly do not believe this is the right space for repurposed TV however done in a matter more fitting for our new medium (as some had suggested in their comments), I think it can help to better to engage our potential viewers. We are in the process of building a new medium and I believe that most broadcasters (or content producers) are willing to let us play in their sandbox. In my time on this side of the table, I have spoken with many networks and local content providers (local TV stations & daily newspapers) that were more than willing to “partner” with me to provide content on my DS network at no cost. Now sure there still is a soft cost of having the logos and potential schedule of ads however if the partner is appropriate to the demo doesn’t it add an element of quality or prestige to your network?

  10. Robert Blair says:

    TV Signal discussion …..

    Very topical matter as the TV industry crosses paths with the new OOH digital signage industry and the mobile consumers.

    I clearly come down on the side of those who beoieve that using/redirecting/modifying the TV signal will be deemed unlawful, but as one person said above, some things become so wide spread that prosecuting to protect becomes impossible.

    Just look at all the ‘reports’ and the like that come over the net from both original sources and from friends forwarding it on in good faith that are clearly copyright noticed – very few folks take the small print notice seriously, and it is impossible for the source to effectively police it. But the law is still the law.

    Like many things in todays world – the law has to act by example – a few high profile cases are chosen, and a positve outcome is broadcast to the world as a ‘reader beware’ examples – eg stock option back dating in start up companies. I would expect there to be some high profile cases by the TV folks as their traditional business base and model is erroded in the time ahead.

    RNB, Mobi33, Inc.

  11. Michael Willems says:

    I agree with Steve. There is probably some degree of wishful thinking going on here… let’s get content for free so we don’t have to pay these creative types all that money for it. Yeah right.

    As an illustration, I know many hotels in Asia and Europe do not have CNN because “CNN wants too much money”. So they carry BBC instead.

    I believe TV is like Music. rebroadcast music and you pay.

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