Copyright lawsuit ends coder's 15 minutes of fame

A father's project for his two daughters turned into a multimillion-dollar copyright infringement lawsuit. Columnist Bob Weinstein tracks the rise and fall of

In just six months, David Simon bolted from obscurity to notoriety. He captured front-page newspaper headlines and was interviewed by several radio stations. He was also sued for $10 million by Disney, Fox, MGM, and Paramount, among other top entertainment companies.

Simon’s short-lived fame resulted from his efforts to be a good father. In January 2000, his six- and 10-year-old daughters were harassing him to find a way to watch Pokemon and other films on their TV. Simon’s house had five computers connected to a high-speed network, but not one VCR.

A classic geek who has been tinkering with computers since he was 14, Simon solved the problem by fitting his daughters’ PC with a tuner card. The 42-year-old veteran programmer—who makes his living developing software for high-speed printing presses—wrote code that programmed the computer to record TV shows on a RealNetworks media player. Then he created a simple Web page that allowed his kids to scan a database of TV shows and choose which shows they wanted to play.

His daughters’ friends were so impressed they asked Simon if he could create the same system for them. In January 2000, he created a Web site that he dubbed “RecordTV” to allow his daughters’ friends—and anyone else—to record TV programs and download them to their PCs for future viewing.

An explosion of traffic
As soon as he put the site on the Web, Simon knew he had created something unique. “I couldn’t believe no one was doing it,” he said.

He wasn’t the only one who thought it was a cool idea. A Webzine discovered the site and wrote a lengthy article about it. From that moment on, his life moved into overdrive. A few days later, he was featured on CNET’s “PM Drive” radio and soon after, he did interviews for magazines across the globe. Hardly a week after the publicity barrage began, he found 12,000 hits had been recorded on his site. By March 2000, traffic had jumped to 1 million hits a day. “The site just couldn’t handle it,” he said. “Here I am with a DSL line trying to run this thing. I needed infrastructure, a provider, and some real Internet access.”

Simon envisioned a huge moneymaker and wanted to take the concept to the next level and build a business around it. “I was offering free content,” he explained. “We could cover our costs with banner ads alone and make money through advertising and by offering a subscription service.”

The dangers of publicity
He found a company to host the site for free, but providing easier access to the site was only a small step in the right direction. Simon needed venture capital to build his business but never had the chance to raise a penny. In June, several top entertainment companies slapped him with a $10 million lawsuit for copyright infringement. The suit said, simply: Close up shop or pay the consequences.

“It was the scariest moment of my life,” he said. “The lawsuit could ruin me.”

It turned out to be a good thing that he never gave up his day job.

In vain, Simon tried to fight the big guys. He found a lawyer who’d represent him on a contingency basis, but he didn’t get far. Further, the prospects of getting financing now seemed hopeless. “The VCs said they’d love to work with me, but first I had to resolve the legal issues,” he said.

Simon never got to see his idea blossom. In August 2000, he gave up the fight and agreed to stop doing business. “In a six-month period, we went through a complete corporate life cycle,” he said.

Looking back on RecordTV’s short history, Simon is still awed by the chain of events. Given the opportunity, he vows he’d do it all again. “Many of the days were scary, but plenty of others were a lot of fun,” he said.

Read more career articles from Bob Weinstein
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