SAN JOSE, Calif. - It’s like a shotgun marriage gone oddly harmonious: Hollywood and the consumer electronics industry are now working closer together after a few years of claws-out antagonism in courtrooms and on Capitol Hill.
It could be the tough economic times or a distaste for further legal showdowns, but many top gadget makers are now trying hard to please the pur veyors of entertainment.
More often than not, that is giving Hollywood’s copy-protection interests a virtual seat at the product design table.
‘‘Without good content there, my products are nothing but furniture or art. So it all falls back on what Hollywood is comfortable with,’’ said Chris Cudina, national sales and marketing manager for Samsung’s digital set-top box group.
Others contend that such coziness sometimes deprives consumers of flexibility — or worse, privacy rights and civil liberties — as entertainment companies exert control over how people use creative works gone digital.
‘‘The threat of litigation has had a chilling effect on what technologists would be prepared to include in any new devices they release,’’ said Gwen Hinze, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Consider how one-time rebel ReplayTV backed down. The tech company’s new owners said last month that its upcoming digital video recorders will no longer allow people to automatically skip ads or share shows over the Internet.
Those features on previous models rattled Hollywood, which fears the Napsterization of television programming and contends that the loss of commercial viewership would kill television’s bread-and-butter.
In true form, 28 studios sued ReplayTV’s previous owner, SONICblue, forcing the struggling consumer electronics company to pay millions of dollars in legal fees.
SONICblue sank. It filed for bankruptcy in March and sold ReplayTV to another electronics company, D &M Holdings, effectively making the copyright-infringement lawsuit moot.
ReplayTV’s president, Jim Hollingsworth, called cooperation with Hollywood the best approach to bringing digital video recording technology to market. ‘‘You look for complementary solutions rather than riding roughshod,’’ he said.
D &M’s technology adviser Tom McCarthy does not think consumers will lose out: ‘‘We’ll be in belt and suspenders, but it’ll be done in a way where the consumer will feel they can still keep up with their digital lifestyle.’’
ReplayTV’s startup rival, TiVo, has deliberately tried to avoid rankling Tinseltown.
TiVo even recruited a TV network veteran to preach to Hollywood the potential benefits of the disruptive technology that lets consumers record programming onto a hard disk and pause or fastforward through live television.
‘‘We go to significant lengths to make sure that we stay on the good side of the networks,’’ said Martin J. Yudkovitz, who left his post as NBC’s executive vice president to become TiVo’s president in April. He said TiVo has stayed away from any file-sharing over the Net or automatic ad-zapping features.
‘‘At first, when the DVR technology came out, there was a near universal gagging from the networks and the advertisers,’’ said Yudkovitz. ‘‘Now TiVo is earning a goodguy image.’’
Last year, S cientific-Atlanta became the first cable set-top box maker to launch a model with a built-in digital video recorder. The advanced box, called the Explorer 8000, is technically equipped with a 30-second commercial skip feature, but none of the cable companies — which have the final say on what features consumers would get — are activating that option, said Tony Wasilewski, Scientific-Atlanta’s chief scientist.
Similarly, Motorola, the nation’s leading cable box maker, is set to soon introduce a cable box with all the bells and whistles of a digital video recorder and much more. But the 30-second skip technology built into it will probably never see the light of day, said Mark DePietro, a Motorola vice president.
Spokesman Keith Cocozza of Time Warner Cable — the first U.S. cable operator to introduce a digital video recorder-equipped cable box — said a delicate balancing act is involved.
‘‘We want to deliver to customers services they want,’’ he said. ‘‘But at the
same time, we need our content and vending partners, and we need to respect and protect their rights.’’
To avoid conflict with Hollywood, Nokia recently added copy-protection technology to its toolkit for developers building mobile phone Internet applications.
It’s a pre-emptive move as cell phones are increasingly becoming vehicles for data, ranging from snapshots to branded entertainment — such as music video clips.
As they introduce such products as PCs with TV tuners and digital media receivers that let consumers store recorded digital video, many device makers are careful to restrict the number of copies that can be made or shared over computer networks.
And more often than not, Hollywood representatives are sitting in on the discussions that determine those technical standards.
Four years ago, the Motion Picture Association of America formed a technology unit to ensure that device makers understood its copyprotection requirements, said Brad Hunt, the association’s chief technical officer.
The two industries argue plenty over the details. Hollywood wants to control distribution as much as possible while the tech industry doesn’t want anti-piracy safeguards driving up the price or limiting the appeal of its products.
Still, a product is more likely to succeed if it gets Hollywood support, said Stephen Nickerson, a managing director of Warner Home Video.
Doug Lichtman, a University of Chicago law professor, was dismayed to see Replay-TV’s new owners bow to Hollywood: ‘‘It troubles me to see the big player bully everyone else, rather than let the courts decide.’’