Fox Networks kicked its retransmission consent battle with Cablevision Systems up a notch Tuesday, firing off a cease and desist letter to the MSO claiming that it is encouraging theft of copyrighted content.
The source of Fox's ire is a New York Daily News report that some of the cable company's customer service reps are directing customers who call in to complain about missing sports on Fox to websites that offer the programming illegally.
The Daily News article did not identify just what sites the CSRs were allegedly directing customers to, but in a letter to Cablevision CEO James Dolan, Fox's lawyers said they may take legal action if the practice does not stop immediately.
Ivi TV, for one, has been pitching itself to Cablevision as an online work-around to the retrans dispute, suggesting it buy the $4.99 monthly subscription for disaffected subs, which gets them access to Fox's New York and New Jersey stations and would be a good PR move for the cable company, it said.
A Cablevision spokesman said he was unfamiliar with the pitch, which Ivi spokesman and investor Hal Bringman said his company had made in e-mails to the operator.
Fox and other broadcasters have sued Ivi TV for copyright infringement while Ivi has sought a declaratory ruling that its service is not illegal. In fact, Fox submitted one of the Ivi emails, passed along to it for comment by a reporter, as an exhibit in its suit against Ivi.
Fox pulled its broadcast stations WYNY and WWOR in New York and WTXF in Philadelphia and cable networks Fox Deportes, NatGeo Wild and Fox Business Network on Oct. 16.
In his letter, Reed Smith attorney John Hooper states that some Cablevision employees are "referring customers to illegal, and perhaps criminal, web sites from which the consumers can allegedly watch unauthorized programming while Fox 5 and My 9 [WWOR] remain dark on Cablevision. Directing customers to illegal web sites that steal Fox programming constitutes copyright infringement by Cablevision because Cablevision is inducing and materially contributing to the infringement activities of these illegal web sites. We demand that you immediately cease this activity."
Hooper continues that if Fox is not satisfied, it may take legal action, including seeking injunctive relief, recovery of its actual and exemplary damages and reimbursement of its attorneys fees incurred in enforcing its rights.
"This is an obvious tactic from News Corp, which blocked the Internet, to shift focus away from their pulling the plug on 3 million New York households," Cablevision said in a statement. "Fox should cease and desist its World Series blackout, put its programming back on Cablevision and agree to binding arbitration."
On Oct. 16, Fox temporarily blocked Cablevision high-speed data customers from accessing its online video on legal sites like Hulu and Fox.com, a practice the programmer said was necessary at the time so as to not reward Cablevision for not negotiating. That blockade was lifted after a few hours when several Internet watchdogs decried the prohibition. Fox claimed it stopped the procedure because it did not want to punish Cablevision high-speed data customers who did not subscribe to the MSOs video product.
"Copyright law exists to protect the very creative freedoms that fuel our industry," Fox said in a statement. "As both a creator and owner of intellectual property - not to mention major sports franchises - Cablevision knows better and should immediately call an end to this unlawful activity."
This latest salvo comes on the heels of the two sides submitting letters to the Federal Communications Commission Monday to prove that each were negotiating in good faith.
In the meantime, Cablevision customers, after being shut out of coverage of the National League Championship Series, continue to run the risk of missing the first game of the World Series, scheduled for tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m.