The Slingbox is a small box that connects to a television–or any other video source–and makes the content available at another place on a home network, or outside the home wherever a broadband Internet connection is available. The Slingbox owner uses a personal computer, laptop, or mobile phone to connect to the Slingbox and see his or her own television, live and complete with the ability to change channels via a simulated virtual remote. The Slingbox’s creators invented the device out of a desire to see sporting events while traveling or when living in areas where the games had been blacked out, and the device is marketed to “the traveling businessman who is also a die-hard sports fan,” among others. The Slingbox has achieved great success, and many Slingbox owners buy the device with other uses in mind. Competitors have developed their own devices with similar “placeshifting” functionality, but none have matched the success of Sling Media, Inc. (“Sling Media”), the company that created the Slingbox. While Sling Media has worked with some content providers, including at least one sports league, others, such as Major League Baseball and Home Box Office, Inc., have threatened suit.
When content owners and other interested parties eventually decide to take action against this emerging technology, consumers may be impacted. Federal statutes designed to deter cable and satellite television theft supply content providers with a cause of action against many users of placeshifting devices. Part II.A of this Comment gives an overview of the current market for placeshifting devices and their functions. Parts II.B to II.G outline the cable theft statutes that may entangle consumers. Part III examines the capabilities of the Slingbox and other, similar devices, as well as their real-world applications, to determine a functional definition of “placeshifting,” and describes a framework with which to analyze possible violations of the cable theft statutes. Finally, Part III includes a brief analysis of enforcement issues, and concludes that, while many uses of placeshifting are probably lawful, the technology still represents a legal grey area with pitfalls for unwary consumers.