Aereo Has Its Day In Court

Posted by in Technology

Aereo LogoAereo pled its case on Tuesday to the Supreme Court. And the judgment could have far reaching impact on the millions of cord cutters looking to free themselves from the monthly cable bill.

If you have never heard of Aereo, It’s not surprising. They are a small company and the service they offer is currently only available in 11 cities around the U.S. For $8 – $12 a month, Aereo provides you with a your own remote TV antenna and DVR. What makes this service special is that you can access this programming via the Internet whenever and wherever you want it. Want to watch the Oscars? Fire it up on your tablet. Want to record the baseball game? Set it and forget it from your laptop. I know what you are saying; I do this already using my home cable DVR. The difference with Aereo is that no cable subscription is required. Aereo accesses Network TV over the air…just like that old set of rabbit ears wrapped in tin foil that used to set on the top of your Magnavox. They don’t license the content from the Networks…they believe they don’t have to. You see the airwaves used by networks like NBC & ABC have belonged to the public since the Communications Act of 1934. This is why you don’t have to pay for these networks. Cable providers are able to charge for their channels because they are broadcasted over their own infrastructure and not the public airwaves.

Aereo Infographic

ABC and the other big networks have filed suit against Aereo, claiming that their service violates the network’s copyrights and amounts to nothing short of theft. Many lower courts have heard their complaints and to date, each of them have upheld Aereo’s rights to provide users with access to their antenna and DVRs. Now the Supreme Court gets to have their say. If they uphold the previous decisions then Aereo could expand aggressively across many new cities. The networks have threatened to retaliate by moving their content behind the cable pay wall and no longer use the public airwaves that Aereo depends on for its service to work. This could have serious repercussions for the millions of Americans who rely on free network television. Some feel that these are just empty threats on the part of the networks. After all, they aren’t getting paid for viewership now anyway. They rely heavily on ad sales to support their programming.

The justices heard oral arguments on Tuesday and several of them found it interesting that other parties like cable and satellite companies pay huge fees to retransmit network TV shows, but Aereo manages to avoid them. “It looks as if somehow you are escaping a constraint that’s imposed upon [other companies]. That’s what disturbs everyone,” said Justice Stephen Breyer. While Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated “you are the only player so far that doesn’t pay any royalties at any stage.”

aereo devicesThe court did pledge to proceed with caution on their ruling, noting how it could potentially impact future tech innovation and existing cloud-based services. Decisions such as this one can have unseen impacts on technology that has yet to be invented. A 1984 court ruling on VCRs set a precedent for consumers to legally make copies of copyrighted material that has been used to justify everything from Napster to Aereo.

This is likely to be only one of many technology-based cases to face the Roberts court in the coming years. Technology and copyright infringement is a complicated issue that deserves careful deliberation. Often, it’s the consumer that suffers when our courts don’t understand tech or the ramifications of their decisions across the digital landscape. A judgment is expected from the high court by June of this year. It will be interesting to see how this court handles this difficult case.

UPDATE


On June 25th the Supreme Court handed down it’s ruling 6-3 against Aereo. The high court decided that Aereo’s individual antenna and DVRs are not sufficient to avoid copyright infringement. Coincidently, broadcasters are already using the decision as a weapon to go after other technology innovations. Fox has sited the case in it’s lawsuit against Dish Network and it’s Hopper technology which is powered by Sling Media. Only time will tell if this does indeed cause a chilling effect across the tech industry and stifle innovation in digital video.

Chet Kanojia, CEO of Aereo sent an email to subscribers today (6/28/14). In it he voices Aereo’s intentions to continue to fight the court’s decision. However, the company’s services will be discontinued until further notice. Full content of the email can be read here.