Can your DVR be in the cloud?

Such a simple question, such a complex answer. After all, we put pretty much our entire lives in the cloud, on YouTube, on OneDrive or Google Drive or iCloud Drive or Mulholland Drive, on Facebook and Snapchat and whatever social network is hot stuff at the moment. It seems like putting our recorded programs in the cloud would be no problem. At least you would think so.

The question of cloud DVR service is actually one of copyright. Broadcasters take copyright very seriously, and they don’t approve of someone else trying to charge to distribute their programming. Why does that make a difference? Cloud DVR is really not just about storing your programs in the cloud – it’s about storing one program and sending it to everyone who wants to watch it. Let me back up a little.

Say you’re a fan of Game of Thrones. Right now if you have HBO, you record it on your DVR. The Supreme Court long ago decided that it was “fair use” for you to record something in your home for your own use, as long as you didn’t make money from it or try to redistribute it. But when that decision was made, they were talking about VCRs. They had no idea of the information revolution to come.

Now, it’s definitely illegal for you to post that episode of GoT on YouTube, although a certain amount of that stuff is tolerated as good advertising. It’s also illegal for you to put it on torrent sites. That stuff is definitely considered piracy.

Somewhere in the middle, though, lies the idea of cloud DVRs. I’m talking about where you tell your pay-TV company that you want to record GoT. Instead of recording it on your DVR and everyone else’s DVR, it’s recorded once and streamed when you press play, as if you had recorded it. There’s one recording, but it goes out to many people.

Obviously this happens since that’s basically a description of On-Demand programming. But it wasn’t always such an obvious thing. Back in 2006, pay-TV provider Cablevision was sued for having a cloud DVR service that would record programs and play them back to multiple people on demand. Believe it or not, the courts ruled against Cablevision at first and it took until 2009 for the Supreme Court to allow the appeals court’s ruling to stand. This meant that as long as the pay-TV provider had the rights to distribute a program, they could play one copy back to multiple people.

So technically, you could have one massive DVR and everyone could share it. Which, like I said, is basically on demand, and pretty much what they do at DIRECTV’s massive Los Angeles Broadcast Center. It’s what makes Netflix and Hulu legal, too. The key, though, is that you have to get permission from the content provider first. You can’t just create one massive DVR for all the DIRECTV channels and record them all without letting the content providers know.

That last sentence is why the very idea of a completely cloud-based DVR hasn’t happened yet. The Supreme Court paved the way for cloud DVRs in 2009 and even seven years later, there are still companies that don’t let their programs be distributed on demand. It took until last year, for example, for DIRECTV viewers to gain access to the popular WATCHESPN and WATCHABC apps because there wasn’t a contract in place to allow for cloud DVR service and distribution of that programming to DIRECTV customers.

The road ahead is clear, and that’s one of the reasons that Sling TV and the recently announced trio of DIRECTV streaming services are expected to become ever more popular. Cloud DVR service is a win for DIRECTV and DISH because they cut down on their equipment costs — remember most satellite TV equipment is provided for free — and it’s a win for consumers who want access to their recorded programs everywhere. In fact, it’s a win for content providers too now that Nielsen is tracking online viewing, or at least trying to.

So yes, the answer is that your DVR can be in the cloud. It will still be several years before your DVR is “only” in the cloud, because it still makes sense to have DVRs in homes to pause live TV, record truly local programming and connect to antennas. But the writing is certainly on the wall, and it’s just a matter of getting the lawyers to agree and we’ll all be DVRing ourselves into the future.