Aereo gets its day in court

Aereo gets its day in court

Summary: Not just Internet television, but now all of TV watching may be changed by the result of American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, which goes before the Supreme Court on April 22.

TOPICS: Networking, Legal

Within the last 50 years we've gone from watching TV over-the-air (OTA) transmissions with rabbit-ears to cable and satellite to Netflix becoming the single largest consumer of Internet broadband. Then along came Aereo, a start-up that took OTA and brought your local TV channels to the Internet and the major TV media companies responded by trying them to sue them out of business.

The Supreme Court will decide if Aereo can keeping bring over-the-air television channels to its Internet customers.

Aereo's technical and business plan is very simple. The company uses arrays of thousands of tiny antennas to receive OTA TV channels. A subscriber in one of their covered cities, which currently include Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Miami, New York and San Antonio, is then assigned an individual antenna from that array and its signal is send to them over the Internet. There, customers can use a variety of devices and apps, such as Google Chromecast, Apple TV, Roku, most major Web browsers, and apps on Android and iOS devices to watch their local OTA broadcasts.

ABC,  NBC, CBS, ZDNet's parent company, and other major broadcasters maintain that Aereo is "stealing" their OTA broadcasts. They allege that Aereo, like the cable and satellite firms it competes with, must pay them rebroadcast fees. Indeed, even before the Aereo service launched, it was being sued by numerous broadcast companies and local TV stations.

Since then the court cases have come rapidly. Sometimes Aereo has won and sometimes they've lost. Starting on April 22nd, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will decide once and for all if Aereo can pursue their existing business plan or if they'll go out of business. It seems unlikely that the broadcasters would allow the upstart Aereo another extension of the existing commercial television business.

If Aereo were to win, it would empower the cord-cutter movement of people who want to cut the cable cord in favor of using the Internet for all their television watching needs. This tends to be much cheaper than using cable or satellite for television.

Legally, according to the SCOTUS Blog, "The Supreme Court [had] held the view that if an enterprising firm came along that made it easier for television viewers or radio listeners to get the programs they wanted, if they paid a fee, free over-the-air programs were fair game: royalties to the broadcasters didn’t have to be paid even though their programs were copyrighted." Congress, on the other hand, has waffled on the issue.

The legal arguments will revolve around the meaning in the "broadcast world of two words (and variations thereon): 'perform' (or 'performance') and 'public' (or 'publicly')." Aereo claims that all they're doing is following in the legal footsteps of Betamax and the DVR by enabling customers a choice on how to deal with public broadcasts. In both examples, the courts rule that the customer is king and that they could choose whether to watch a broadcast live or save it for another time.

The broadcasters disagree. Gordon Smith, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said, "Quite simply, Aereo takes copyrighted material, profits from it, and does so without compensating copyright holders." The media companies will argue that Aereo is making their OTA signals "public: and thus must pay their fees." Aereo will maintain that their retransmission of the signal are sent from private antenna to private individuals for their personal use.

Who will win? There's no telling at this point. I expect SCOTUS to focus very narrowly on Aereo's specific implementation of OTA to the Internet rebroadcasting. They don't want to get in the way of future technical advances. But whether they'll buy Aereo's arguments is entirely up in the air.

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Topics: Networking, Legal

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  • Aereo

    One can hope Aereo wins this one
  • The broadcasters should be paid

    Using a private signal to make a public braodcast to private individuals, is a very clear violation, if the article's explanation of the legal issue, is accurate. So now I wonder whether that's the real issue, as it would never have reached the Supreme Court, were it that bald a difference.

    'Public' means a MASS GROUP, even if each one in that mass group, is an individual. When a CBS or ABC makes its own broadcasts, and those broadcasts are essentially siphoned off by some other entity who charges even other private individuals for the siphoning, it's only fair that CBS or ABC, etc. be paid some kind of royalty for that. The cable companies have to do it, Amazon has to do it, so an internet company has to do it. It's only fair to the content makers.

    I don't see how Aereo can make any other kind of argument, no matter how it structures its own rebroadcasting. They are charging their own customers, no problem there. But part of that charge should include a royalty to the broadcasters.

    Do you like working for free? Bet not. So it's alike unfair, to expect others to do so. Simple empathy alone, tells you that Aereo should pay something. I wonder how this issue could be so long, in litigation. If Aereo wins, I'll be boycotting whatever it sells, and will urge others to do the same. Dishonesty, is never the proper way to sell a thing.
    • They're already paid!

      by advertisers (and Aereo doesn't remove them). they just want to get paid twice - like with cable re-broadcast fees that never should've been allowed.

      I wish broadcasters loose and keep their promise to stop over the air transmission - so we can use that spectrum for something useful.

      BTW - company i work for ( a PBS affiliate) joined broadcasters in the lawsuit - you taxes and donation at work: they suing to be restricted to smaller audience!
    • Do you record OTA programs on a PVR?

      Imagine you connected your PVR to your encrypted local wireless network and watched a program on a tablet in another room.

      Then "Congratulations", you have just "rebroadcast" a program and must pay royalties to the network corporations. (You pirate!) At least, this is what Aereo losing this case would mean.
    • brainout, you lost on the first line

      Aereo is picking up a PUBLIC broadcast signal, not a private one. If they were tapping the satellite feeds to the cable providers you would have a point, but they are not. They are providing antennas for customers who cannot pick up broadcast TV at their location, and apparently staying within the confines of the area that SHOULD be covered by the broadcaster. Many people within the broadcast area cannot put up their own antenna, so Aereo provides the antenna and a PVR to access the content received by that antenna. They are not grabbing content in a different market and rebroadcasting it, only facilitating access to the content being broadcast locally.
      • No, whorfin

        It's a gimmicky claim. If it was YOUR production they did it to, you'd be hopping mad. And you should be mad too, if you're paying cable fees. Because Aereo is not doing, what the cable company does -- PAY for it.

        Theft is theft.
        • And this is presumably why the SCOTUS has accepted the case.

          It's not theft if the SCOTUS says that it isn't.
          • It is certainly not theft, no matter what

            When you steal something, the person you took it from doesn't have it anymore. This is, at worst, copyright infringement. A serious problem, but not technically the same thing as theft.

            That being said, if an individual contractor comes into your home and sets up your TiVo for you by connecting it to an antenna, and then charges you a rental fee for that antenna and TiVo, that would almost certainly be legal. The argument about rebroadcast is that a single source is disseminated to multiple recipients (that's what *broad*cast means). Aero is, at most, narrowcasting -- taking a single transmission, grabbing it with your personal antenna and forwarding that antenna on to you. That might still be illegal. Or it might not.

            If the law only limits re-broadcast rights, and Aero is deemed to not be doing it, that probably makes it legal.

            It is furthermore important to note that the major broadcast networks are not being hurt by this as per their original business model. Indeed, this could theoretically improve their penetration as people cut the cord and opt to *only* have those channels that broadcast. In any event, they are certainly double-dipping by getting fees from your cable provider and presenting advertisements. The airwaves were sold to the networks because it was believed that this was a use of the spectrum that benefited the public. Lower costs to access information through that spectrum is certainly a public benefit. It is hard to see the government wanting to make it harder to access material that uses the public's airwaves. If the major networks stop broadcasting, that will simply open up the spectrum to other content providers. This is fine by me.
            x I'm tc
    • I AM A PIRATE!

      So that means every time I have watched TV (for free) using an antenna for the past many years, I have been stealing copyrighted material! I wonder when Big Brother is going to come knocking on my door demanding payment or seizing my equipment? These "private" signals are available everywhere. I can hardly wait to see how the piracy police come charging into our homes and hauling us off to the judge!
  • It's tecnically a rebroadcast,

    as they are converting it from it's original broadcast signal into a totally different signal altogether. a signal that can't be picked up via the equipment it was intended to receive it.

    Hence "rebroadcast", and clearly stated they need permission

    Now if all they did was setup a digital repeater, that received the transmission, strengthened it, then transmitted it in the same format, then maybe they could get away with that without considered "rebroadcasting" it.

    It will be interesting to see how tis plays out with definitions.
    • no it's not...

      it's unicast - to single device. they don't pick a 1 signal distribute it to many - they pick 1 and send it to 1.
    • Thank you, Farrel

      You made my reply for me. Thanks again.
      • Except that it's not true

        There is *no* rebroadcasting. One antenna, one recipient. Just like you have at your house. That's narrowcasting.
        x I'm tc
    • People do this already, and it's covered by "fair use".

      Aereo's business model is hiring out Internet-connected PVRs.
  • And low-income households?

    "If Aereo were to win, it would empower the cord-cutter movement of people who want to cut the cable cord in favor of using the Internet for all their television watching needs. This tends to be much cheaper than using cable or satellite for television."

    Let's not forget that OTA is free for low-income households. In addition, let's be aware that, in 2012, 81% of the U.S. population are Internet users:

    Which means that roughly 20% of the U.S. population are not Internet users.

    If SCOTUS rules in favor of Aereo, then low-income U.S. households will be required to 1) pay an ISP for an Internet connection and 2) pay Aero (or some other provider) in order to have access to local television. I can only hope that SCOTUS takes this into consideration.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Yes, SCOTUS should remind the networks of their obligations.

      And tell them that OTA transmissions are *required*.

      Surely that's what you meant?!
      • An empty threat, then?
        "The CEO of CBS, Les Moonves, has stated that the company is likely to distribute its content via the internet and through relationships with content providers such as telecoms and cable companies should Aereo be deemed legal."

        Cable is very expensive as well.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
        • Yes - call their bluff!

          Lets see if he *seriously* intends to cut his network off from (you say) 20% of the US population!