Cablevision Systems Corp. will put the Sony Betamax copyright ruling to the test in the second quarter when it launches a technical trial in Long Island that enables customers to record programs on dedicated space on the operator's network-based video servers.

The remote-storage digital video recorder (RS-DVR), as Cablevision calls it, will turn digital set-tops without on-board hard drives into "virtual" DVRs. Initially, Cablevision will offer it to fewer than 1,000 "friendlies."

The RS-DVR system that Cablevision will test will provide each customer with 80 gigabytes of dedicated, rented space on a network server. The system, which replicates a two-tuner DVR, will support recordings in both standard- and high-definition format.

The interface consumers see and use for the RS-DVR essentially parallels the traditional DVR environment.

"It's going to function in every respect like a DVR. From a consumer perspective, it is a DVR," Cablevision Chief Operating Officer Tom Rutledge told CED.

That means if a customer requests to record The Sopranos, an individual copy of the show will be recorded and placed on the customer's rented portion of the server farm. If 100 customers request to copy The Sopranos, the system will make 100 individual recordings.

Because the RS-DVR service is designed to mimic the DVR, that also means, presumably, that customers can also fast-forward through advertisements as they would with any DVR. Time Warner Cable, cognizant of the potential copyright issues of the nDVR, scaled back its initial plans for Mystro, and has since taken a different approach with "Start Over," a service that allows customers to restart selected shows that are already in progress. Among the differences, Time Warner does not allow customers to fast-forward Start Over programs. Additionally, Time Warner has taken the extra step of securing copyright clearance for participating shows. Another key difference: Time Warner Cable, not the customer, is the one doing the recording.

Cablevision, however, is interpreting Sony Betamax to mean that it is perfectly legal for consumers to record shows on their own, on home-side hard drives or on rented storage that happens to exist on the operator's network.

Time will tell whether all programmers and studios agree with Cablevision's interpretation that recording something on a hard drive in the home is essentially the same as doing it on a server outside the home. Cablevision, for its part, says it has done its homework and believes the approach is perfectly within the bounds of copyright law.

"We researched the legality [of the service]," Rutledge said. "We think it's fair use under the Betamax case."

In addition to reducing truck rolls, the network-based DVR will also breathe new life into deployed digital set-tops that do not contain hard drives. Rutledge said the "vast majority" of Cablevision's 2 million digital video customers do not have set-tops with on-board DVRs.