The Aereo Lawsuit

The company Aereo defends itself in a Supreme Court case that could have implications for cloud computing companies and retransmission fees.

Aereo logo

Aereo could revolutionize the way we watch TV.

Aereo allows subscribers to pick up cable broadcasts and watch live TV from various devices in their home for just $8 a month. Aereo is being sued for copyright infringement. The company states that it utilizes a tiny antenna to access live broadcasts, record the show to a DVR in the cloud, and then allow you to watch your own personal recording.

Business Insider describes the process in depth:

It might seem strange in the cable/satellite TV era, but a lot of programming is, and has always been, available for free over the air if you have an antenna. Think back to the days when everyone had “rabbit ear” antennas. You can still do that today and get networks like NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox for free.

Aereo’s workaround was to invent a tiny HD antenna that can access over-the-air networks, just like those rabbit ear antennas once did. The antenna itself is pretty impressive. It’s about the size of your thumbnail, so Aereo can pack a bunch of them into a tiny space. The signal from the antenna assigned to you is transmitted over the Internet to your device.

Cable companies feel threatened by Areo’s service and claim that it violates copyright law. Their argument is that Aereo is allowing users to copy copyrighted material and then giving users the right to performance or display, which would normally only be given with licensing fees or retransmission fees. Aereo’s advocacy site presents their viewpoint:

Aereo’s technology provides a consumer the ability to use a remotely located individual antenna to access free-to-air broadcasts, make a personal copy of a program on a remote DVR and play back that copy only to him or herself. Using the cloud, Aereo was able to develop a smarter, more sophisticated antenna, purpose-built for the 21st century consumer.

Aereo has intelligently chosen their words. They highlight “free-to-air broadcasts.” Free-to-air is not a new concept, although it does seem to be a narrowly discussed topic. Free-to-air is not a formally defined term, but based on several free-to-air sites, one can determine that free-to-air implies unencrypted broadcast content that can be picked up by satellite.

They move on to highlighting “personal copy” and further that by stating the service is intended to only be played back to the service subscriber, “him or herself”. This is important because it can be used to circumvent the main argument against Aereo. By explicitly stating that the content picked up using Aereo is only to be used for the subscriber implies that infringing on the right to distribute or performance is not being infringed.

Aereo’s Supreme Court approval could revolutionize the way we watch TV. Gaining access to content for just $8 a month would allow more consumers than ever to have access to America’s favorite past time, watching television. We know that most cable companies will be up in arms against Aereo, but we have seen the Supreme Court rule in favor of unfavorable defendants in the past.

For example, Hercog v. Hustler, 1987, ruled in favor of Hustler magazine, despite Hercog’s 14 year old boy accidentally committing suicide after attempting something featured in the magazine. Because the information contained in the magazine had also been content in the Journal of Child Psychiatry, and because it wouldn’t make sense to remove the information or have the journal pay damages, the court ruled in favor of Hustler.

While Hercog v. Hustler highlights free speech, it is analogous to the Aereo case. There are several sources online and in print that demonstrate how to access free-to-air broadcasts already. Would each of those resources now need to appear before court and pay damages to the various broadcasting companies? When looking at the Aeroe case narrowly, I would state that I hope the Supreme Court rules in favor of Aereo and allows them to continue their service.

Sources:

Aereo, Inc., 2014. About aereo: It’s not magic. It’s wizardry. Aereo.com. Accessed on 5/18/2014

Kovach, S., 4/21/2014. The supreme court is about to make a decision that could completely change the tv industry. Business Insider. Accessed on 5/18/2014

Lagorio-Chafkin, C., 4/22/2014. Aereo’s fight for life: Supreme court raises an eyebrow. Inc.com. Accessed on 5/18/2014.

Meredith Hayley Greer

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