Remember when you had to be home at 8 p.m. to watch a favorite TV show? Devices like TiVo and your cable company's digital video recorder changed all that. Then along came the Slingbox, a device that lets you watch your home DVR or cable box from anywhere in the world using your laptop and an Internet connection. More than 500,000 Slingboxes have been sold since they were introduced in 2005. But like many disruptive technologies, the device is being used in creative ways that its manufacturer, Sling Media, never imagined.
Originally designed for personal viewing, the Slingbox has been transformed into a global online broadcast platform by individual users and a handful of crafty companies. With a practice known as Slingbox hosting, owners of the boxes are charging others in different cities and countries access to their Slingbox video feeds. For a monthly charge of about $100, subscribers get the original owner's Slingbox ID, download the free Sling software, and voilà—a New Yorker could be watching the local news in Los Angeles or London. Sharing is especially popular among sports fans who use sites like slingboxsharing.com that provide a forum for owners to trade their IDs with users in other states. That allows a Knicks fan in Iowa, for example, to watch live Knicks games that may not be broadcast outside of New York.
Then there are companies like techwareit.com and a2btv.com that both allow homesick Americans living overseas to watch U.S. television over the Internet. For as low as $99, plus the cost of a cable or satellite TV subscription, they'll wire up a Slingbox so that international customers can watch American must-see-TV from anywhere in the world.
"Slingbox gives people the ability to essentially become a rebroadcaster of content, and sort of become their own cable company," says Michael Gartenberg, a tech analyst at Jupitermedia. "We are living in a global society and people want to watch the Yankees, even if they're not living in the New York area or the United States."
While they're popular with users, the Slingbox's manufacturer, Sling Media, is not pleased. The company says these practices violate its license agreement, which states that users may not lease, lend, rent or otherwise distribute the software to any third party. The company has banned all Slingbox sharing and hosting posts on its official message boards, warning customers that the use is illegal. "Hosting Slingboxes and sharing finder ID's is prohibited by our End User License Agreement," says Sling Media spokesman Brian Jaquet. "And we don't condone any violation of copyright law." But will it take legal action to stop unauthorized uses? "No comment," Jaquet says.
Not surprisingly, cable and satellite TV providers are also up in arms, underscoring that unauthorized rebroadcasts of their content are illegal. "Our acceptable-use policy, which every customer agrees to, is pretty clear about what you can and can't do with your cable subscription," says Time Warner Cable spokesman Alex Dudley. "And the majority of [these uses] fall outside of the acceptable-use policy."
The major professional sports leagues aren't big fans either, largely because it enables viewers to skirt the leagues' multi-million-dollar exclusive broadcast partnerships that restrict regional broadcasts and provide local blackouts for programming when games aren't sold out. So far, however, none of the leagues seem willing to prosecute unauthorized broadcasts or alienate some of their most avid fans. "Our fans are never wrong," says MLB.com CEO Bob Bowman. "We can never suggest that a fan shouldn't do everything he or she is doing to watch a baseball game… the best way to combat these gray activities is to have a better product: higher quality, more streams, high definition, things that [Slingbox] can't do." The NFL declined NEWSWEEK's requests for comment.
For their part, Slingbox owners see nothing wrong with using their devices to their fullest advantage. They believe that once they purchase the device, they should be able to use it in the privacy of their homes in any way they see fit. Online sharing and hosting, say owners, just underscores the desire to watch news, entertainment and sports from anywhere at any time. "If there were legal and simple ways for people in remote locations to watch whatever content they wanted, those people would pay for it," Gartenberg says. "The fact that there is demand for these types of services indicates that there is a market opportunity for legitimate [offerings]."
Some content providers have already realized this. Last year, EchoStar, which owns Dish Network, bought Slingbox to give it a competitive edge over rival cable and satellite TV providers. The NHL has also partnered with Slingbox to distribute league content through its Clip+Sling service, which allows the creation of short e-mailable video clips.
One thing, though, is clear: Slingbox, which also enables TV viewing on cell phones and other handheld devices, is leading the charge in the merging of TV and the Internet. And according to Gartenberg, the genie may already be out of the bottle. "They can't turn off the technology," he says. "People are carrying screens with them all the time in the guise of phones and laptops, so they're going to want their content to flow from location to location. What you have to figure out is what's the fair way for people to use this technology, get the content that they want and pay a fair price for it."