This morning I read this interesting report from Video Nuze about a new online video DVR service called PlayLater. PlayLater, from the makers of PlayOn (which lets you stream video from your computer to your TV or mobile device), will let you record your favorite online videos and shows so that you can watch them whenever you want.

Wait... what?

A DVR For Online Video?

Let's double check that. What does their website say?

"The photocopier, the tape recorder, the VCR, the DVR and now… PlayLater, the DVR for online video. Now you can record your favorite shows and watch them anytime, anywhere, even offline!"

PlayLater will let you record your favorite shows from Hulu, Netflix, and similar services so that you can watch them whenever you want. It's opening with a small beta--only 5,000 users--that appears to still be open if you're interested. The service will cost $4.99 per month, or $49.99 if you pay annually.

Users will need to download the software from PlayLater before using it. And the recording time for each show will equal the normal run-time, meaning your computer needs to stay on the whole time.

Does Anyone Need This?

I though the whole point of online video was that it gives users the ability to watch shows, clips, and movies on their own time. That's why it's better than TV, right? Instead of having to be in front of the television on a specific day at a specific time, I can just live my life how I like and catch up on shows at a time that's most convenient to me.

Maybe I'm going out to dinner, but I want to watch the latest episode of The Office online as well. I suppose I could use PlayLater to record it, and then watch it when I got home. But guess what... it's still available when I get home... streaming.

The only reason i can see for someone to want this would be to get around the terms and services at places like Hulu and Netflix, which leads me to my next point.

This Can't Be Legal, Right?

Video content on sites like Hulu or Netflix can come and go, with certain shows or episodes disappearing after a time. Which is, of course, related to the content distribution deals the services sign with movie and television studios. You can have this show for this long. That's how it works, and Hulu Plus & Netflix users know this.

Using the kind of service we're talking about here is a way for us to watch copyrighted content after its streaming window has ended. And since we're talking about "recording" the shows here... isn't that basically stealing? Like... a formalized piracy? Isn't that kind of the whole point of "streaming video," that they don't want you to download or own a copy? With Netflix and Hulu, you pay for the right to watch a piece of video content, not the right to own it forever.

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In fact, let's check the Hulu Terms & Conditions to see what it says, shall we?

"You may not either directly or through the use of any device, software, internet site, web-based service, or other means copy, download, stream capture, reproduce, duplicate, archive, distribute, upload, publish, modify, translate, broadcast, perform, display, sell, transmit or retransmit the Content unless expressly permitted by Hulu in writing."

Now, I'm no legal expert, but it sounds like I'm not supposed to do the very thing PlayLater's service will let me do.

So I see no way that PlayLater doesn't run smack into a wall of lawsuits someday soon. The founder says he believes his service falls under the same protection as traditional DVRs. And I even think I understand why he would say that. Heck, networks and studios weren't exactly thrilled about traditional DVRs when they came out. But they're still around.

But the Internet and broadcast TV are the not the same thing.

This is not just about the copyright on the content, which would be owned by the studios and production houses. It's also about the terms of service at Hulu and Netflix, which is just a big a legal hurdle for PlayLater as copyright.

It's also important to point out that PlayLater's service will apparently mess with ad systems, such as the ad-choice program Hulu often uses--consumers would still see an ad when using PlayLater, but the element of choice would be gone. And the element of choice has shown recently to be a very good tool for boosting viewer engagement with an ad. So I don't think the advertisers will be too keen on this new "DVR for online video" service either.

PlayLater Faces Uphill Battle

I'm just not convinced there are any real legitimate reasons to use a service like this. It doesn't save me any bandwidth at all, because it has to record the full duration of the video length. It doesn't offer much convenience, since online video is already on-demand.

It really only helps me do one thing: get around the rules. I could download shows that I'm not supposed to own a copy of, and then watch them outside the rights-holder's intended window of release or when I'm offline. But the service minimizes the ad impact, and violates several elements of the terms of service agreement.

Of course, I'm only one man. Maybe you see a consumer use that makes a lot of sense in PlayLater. But I hope it's a legal one, if you do. Because even if the service made tons of sense to me as a customer, I wouldn't be able to make much use of it if the company does run into legal issues.

  • Rob

    Details about Media Mall Technologies (creator of products).

  • Rob

    IF these guys are offshore, like, there will be NO way for the providers to stop it.

  • David Abrams

    On a trip to Italy last month my wife and I watched several episodes of The Practice that I had recorded off of Hulu using PlayLater while crushed in economy class (with no WiFi). Since my telephone company wants to charge extra for tethering and even then limit my downloads, it seems like being able to download and save videos with limitless, free home Internet then watch them later has a lot of traction.

  • Eric

    I think you have some solid points, but in reality this is not much different from what PlayOn has been doing for years.. the only difference here is they are exposing the cached content to you to watch.(normally, Playon would delete the content after you finish watching it)

    That program also allows users to bypass restrictions, such as watching Hulu on a mobile device or gaming console without a subscription to Hulu+.

    And yet, it's going strong.

    As for uses for this software? I can give you one..

    I'm in an area where our broadband choices are extremely limited(or extremely expensive). Some evenings-during prime time-, our bandwidth drops to levels not suitable for smooth streaming video.

    With PlayLater I should theoretically be able to choose the shows I want to have ready for the next day and have them download overnight/during the workday when my bandwidth availability is at it's highest. (unfortunately in the few minutes I checked out the software last night, I couldn't find a way to schedule downloads.. only to download them immediately. Not much help in that form.

  • William Richmond

    Hey Jeremy - thanks for the question this will hit content providers' radar screens as you point out. However, as long as PlayLater acts like a DVR, I'm not sure how an exception can be made. But we'll leave that to the lawyers to figure out.

    On the question of is there a use for PlayLater, it seems straightforward to me: there are still plenty of times when people are either not online or are online but have a lousy connection. Being able to take online video recordings on the road has huge value. No more packing DVDs, paying to download from iTunes, dealing with ridiculous rental expiration policies, etc. Pricing is an open question, but the value prop is solid to me.