TiVo’s plan to allow customers to transfer television programmes to Apple’s video iPod poses a new challenge for television networks and studios, which are intent on controlling their content as it migrates to digital platforms.

The move highlights the difficulties of sorting out copyrights as television’s traditional business model is rapidly overhauled to make way for digital distribution.

Tivo announced on Monday that, as an enhancement to its TiVoToGo service, it will in future allow subscribers to transfer for free programmes they had recorded to an iPod or Sony PSP portable device.

Tom Rogers, TiVo’s chief executive, characterised the service as a further step towards allowing consumers to watch programmes when they want and where they want.

However, it could undermine an agreement that Walt Disney’s ABC network struck with Apple in October to sell episodes of top programmes, such as Desperate Housewives and Lost, through its iTunes store for $1.99 apiece.

Anne Sweeney, president of ABC, and other television executives have made clear in recent weeks that they are intent on avoiding the pitfalls of the music industry, which lost control of its content to piracy and illegal file-sharing once it became digital.

With a slew of recent agreements to sell their programmes on cable video-on-demand or through iTunes, ABC and other networks have been trying to strike a balance between offering consumers flexibility while still earning money from their programmes.

The networks brushed aside the TiVo move on Monday, suggesting that it posed little threat because of TiVo’s relatively limited user base. Nevertheless, some ex-perts disagreed.

“I’d be very surprised if TiVo doesn’t get a ‘cease-and-desist’ letter from the intellectual property owners,” said Tom Selz, founding partner of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, a law firm that specialises in media issues.

Jim Denney, TiVo’s vice-president of product marketing, acknowledged that TiVo had made its announcement without consulting television networks or studios, which own most programming, but said the company was using open-industry standards.

TiVo will also place digital ‘watermarks’ on programmes in order to discourage piracy.

Tivo’s share price closed up about 6 per cent in New York on Monday after the announcement.

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