AGOURA HILLS, Calif. (AP) — It didn't take much for a suburban computer programmer named David Simon to make the transition from concerned father to accused global media pirate.
In November, Simon set out to appease his eight-year-old daughter, Phoebe, who was upset about missing too many episodes of the cartoon show "Pokemon." With two of his VCRs not working and a third in the habit of eating tapes, Simon plugged his TV antenna into a computer, fiddled a while and saved the show on his family's home computer network. When his daughter's friends got jealous, he put the episodes on a Web page for them all to see.
Simon later set out to turn his family's "virtual VCR" into a business that would record television shows on a Web site for viewers around the world to watch at their convenience. And though his fledgling enterprise has no financing, no offices and no executives other than Simon, it does have the rapt attention of a dozen major entertainment companies, which have slapped Simon and his start-up company, RecordTV, with a $10 million copyright infringement lawsuit in a United States District Court in Los Angeles.
The companies, including giants like Time Warner Inc. and Walt Disney Co., allege that Simon is stealing their shows and beaming them illegally to Web users everywhere. The entertainment companies' swift response shows how eager they are to move more aggressively against potential video pirates than they did in the music industry. The major record labels last year allowed Napster Inc. to build an audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands before taking legal action against its controversial file-sharing program.
Simon's service demonstrates how easy it is to grab some of the most valuable entertainment there is and zap it everywhere without asking its owners' permission. These days, a lone programmer working out of a home office, with little more than a PC and a high-speed Internet connection, is all it takes.
"Out of the MIT undergraduate population, probably half of them could have done this in their spare time," says Michael Bove, a principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory.
Simon, a wiry 40-year-old with hair past his shoulders, is awed by his new status as a Hollywood bad guy. A programmer for a printing-software company in Ventura, Calif., Simon's interest in technology is hinted at by the red Volkswagen Beetle — California plate DEBUG ME — that sits in his driveway. His quiet San Fernando Valley lifestyle has been disrupted enough that he hasn't had time recently for his solitary 15-mile runs. The situation is so off-putting that Simon says he hasn't read beyond the first page of the lawsuit against him. "I'm in over my head," he says.
It didn't take much for Simon to become a cutting-edge Web player. He had already been using his computer to watch the news and "Star Trek" reruns. He did that by connecting his TV signal to his computer's TV tuner card.
He then began working nights and weekends to create the "glue" — computer code — that would stitch together four elements: the tuner card, software to capture and store the images, RealPlayer software to stream the video, and a Web site to provide access to it all. While that is no job for a novice, Simon says: "For a good techie, it's doable."
Simon didn't want the responsibility of running a start-up. "Until all this happened, I had the most stress-free, relaxed life in the world," he says. But he began to wonder whether he might have a lucrative business idea on his hands. With his wife, Robin, he began searching for an unclaimed company name — VCR.com wasn't available — and studied up on raising venture capital. He put together a five-page business plan with the help of his dad, who is retired from the furniture business.