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RealNetworks Pushes Legal Limit With Next Version Of RealPlayer

New software will allow users to download non-protected online video to their computers and play it back on a DVD player.

RealNetworks plans to release at the end of the month a new version of the RealPlayer that lets people download non-copyright-protected online video and burn it to a disk for playback on a DVD player.

RealPlayer 11 is the latest attempt by RealNetworks to hold its position in a market crowded with far bigger players, such as Apple and Microsoft. The new feature, which at least one expert says is legal, gives RealNetworks something its rivals don't yet have.

"The thing about Real is they're scrappy," said Michael McGuire, an analyst for Gartner. "They keep going and trying, and you have to give them credit for that."

The upgrade, scheduled for release at the end of the month, detects video on a page and then places a download button next to it. The content can then be stored on a hard drive and burned to a CD for playback. A premium version for burning DVDs is available for a one-time cost of $29.95. The software won't download content that's protected by digital rights management technology.

Jeff Chasen, VP in charge of RealPlayer, said focus groups revealed that consumers wanted to be able to do more with online video than just watch it on a computer. "They want more control and more flexibility," Chasen said, adding that the software doesn't violate copyright laws. "It's a completely legal product," he said. "We built it for consumers to create the best experience for content anywhere and anytime, but only for personal use at the home."

Lawyer Laurence Pulgram, partner in the copyright litigation group at Fenwick & West LLP in San Francisco, agreed, saying RealNetworks has managed to stay within copyright laws that cover such devices as VCRs. "This is pretty close to the paradigm example of a VCR-type device," Pulgram said. "It has substantial non-infringing uses."

A potential impact, however, could be to companies that offer streams as a way to sell a download. If a person can record the stream, why buy the download? "I do think that this and other stream-ripping software poses potential challenges to some business models," Pulgram said. He predicted many more companies would take steps to add DRM to video streams.

Besides one-click downloads, RealPlayer 11 also lets users build a library for storing play lists and can transfer downloads for watching on a TV. The player also offers a large screen for post-download viewing.

Despite the "cool" features in the upgrade, RealNetworks is still faced with the challenge of getting people who use media players other than RealPlayer to add one more, McGuire said. "It's going to be incumbent on them to get people to download the client, and that's a tough task."

The new software isn't the first time RealNetworks has tried to differentiate itself from rivals by giving users more flexibility with online content. The company angered Apple in 2004 with software called Harmony that enabled people to play on their iPods music downloaded from the RealNetworks music store. Apple later added technology to the iPod to block Harmony.

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