Bell moves to stop VMedia's skinny basic TV app that bypasses cable companies

Bell Media has sent a cease and desist letter threatening legal action if VMedia, a small Canadian internet and IPTV provider does not remove Bell's signals from a VMedia service that streams live TV over the internet.

Media giant sends cease and desist letter to startup that's offering TV over internet via Roku app

VMedia's service lets people watch television shows over the internet, without the need for a cable subscription.

Bell Media has sent a cease and desist letter threatening legal action if VMedia, a small Canadian internet and IPTV provider, does not remove Bell's signals from a VMedia service that streams live TV over the internet.

"This is the real deal," VMedia's George Burger says. "They've threatened an injunction against us."

"Please be advised that Bell Media has not authorized and does not authorize the distribution or retransmission by [VMedia] of any of its broadcast signals or speciality services, including but not limited to the CTV and CTV TWO signals" Bell's letter to VMedia dated Sept. 29 reads.

"We therefore demand that VMedia immediately cease distributing or retransmitting any of Bell Media's broadcast signals, speciality services or copyrighted programs."

"If this is not done by 11:59 pm ET on September 30th, 2016, Bell intends to take further action," the letter says.

When asked for comment, spokeswoman for Bell said the company will seek a court injunction to stop VMedia.

"VMedia is distributing CTV and CTV Two signals outside of its licensed broadcast business and without Bell Media's consent," Emily Young Lee said. "It's a clear copyright violation, and we asked them to stop. They refused, so we're asking for a court injunction to end the copyright infringement."

'Skinny Basic' app

At issue is VMedia's new service which offers a so-called Skinny Basic cable package through a Roku app.

The Roku TV and streaming video player has been available in the U.S. and Canada for a while now.  Much like Apple TV or Google's Chromecast, it allows users to stream content from the internet on their television.

Earlier this month, VMedia started offering its Skinny Basic cable package through a Roku app for a cost of $17.95 per month. The subscription does not require a specific VMedia internet subscription.

It means that anyone with a Roku player and their own internet subscription can have access to 20 live television channels, including CTV, CBC, Global, as well as U.S. networks ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and PBS.

In its letter to VMedia, Bell contends that because VMedia's service is offered over the internet — not a private managed network — and does not require a specific VMedia internet connection, the service falls outside of the scope of VMedia's license as a Broadcasting Distribution Undertaking (BDU).

BDUs like VMedia include cable and satellite services and are generally allowed to retransmit over-the-air and other signals.

"We're entitled under the Copyright Act to retransmit over the air signals for no cost because we're a licensed BDU." says Burger.

Bell disagrees with that assessment, saying in their letter that VMedia is not a "retransmitter" and therefore doesn't have the right to broadcast that material without the permission of the copyright holder. 

Changing landscape

"ABC and Disney, the most important thing to them is to sell their content," Burger said.

"In the U.S people who have content are happy to provide that content to Sling.  Which is essentially the same thing that we're talking about here."

Sling TV is a service that allows subscribers to watch cable TV channels on their TVs, computers or mobile devices. These are the same channels offered by a cable or satellite TV service, except they're delivered over the Internet.

The case raises interesting questions about the future of technology and how TV signals are accessed by consumers. 

VMedia contends it shouldn't matter whether it offers these channels through a VMedia IPTV subscription or via a Roku player over the internet. 

"The Copyright Act is technologically neutral. It shouldn't matter," Burger says

Long battle

Even if Bell Media doesn't manage to win any formal court rulings preventing VMedia from offering its skinny basic package through the Roku App, Bell may still win in the end, VMedia says.

"For us, the prospect of going through litigation like this is really cost prohibitive," Burger says

"Bell has untold millions of dollars that it can afford to spend on litigation. We're a startup. We're trying to find our way to profitability."


Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Business Reporter. Tips/Story ideas always welcome.