Supreme Court to decide the future of Internet TV

Supreme Court to decide the future of Internet TV

Summary: The Supreme Court has decided to take up the case of ABC v. Aereo and nothing less than the future of over-the-air and Internet television is at stake.

TOPICS: Networking, Legal

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will be deciding the case of ABC vs. Aereo. Nothing short than the future of over-the-air (OTA) and Internet TV is at stake. No, I'm not kidding.

Aereo interface: Small Internet TV service, big law suit

Here's where the legal problem arises. Services, such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon and devices like Apple TV, Roku, and Google Chromecast all make it easy to watch Internet TV. Many of the major OTA networks—ABC, NBC, Fox and ZDNet's parent company CBS—however don't make it easy to watch all their shows on the Internet. Many people want to cut the cable or satellite cord, but find it hard to watch the major broadcast networks even with an OTA antenna. Aereo makes it easy for users to watch their local OTA TV over the internet.

Aereo combines several simple Internet TV ideas to deliver OTA TV to Internet users. It works like this: Aereo sets up clusters of miniature antennas in an area, such as New York City. When you sign up for the service, you are assigned two of those antennas. One is for watching live shows and the other is for recording programs. Your local OTA shows are then streamed to a cloud-based digital video recorder (DVR)-like service.

When you want to watch your local TV stations, you can watch your shows on PCs with up-to-date versions of Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, or Internet Explorer Web browsers. You can also watch shows on Apple iPads; iPhones running iOS 4.x or better; Apple TV, using Airplay; Roku units with 3.0 or higher firmware, and on Android as a beta program. With a computer and Chromecast, you can also "cast" your show from a PC-based Chrome Web browser to your HDTV.

The TV networks hate this idea. Rather than allow their shows to be streamed to users, Major broadcasters and media companies such as  News Corp., Walt Disney, Comcast, CBS, NBC and Univision have all sued Aereo. Fox even threatened to take its stations off the air entirely and turn the "Fox broadcast network to a pay channel." These companies are afraid they'll lose all control of how their content is distributed and that in turn will ruin their local TV stations and destroy the value of their cable and satellite TV deals." This case is expected to be heard in April 2014.

In this latest case, which SCOTUS has taken up, the issue is, "Whether a company 'publicly performs' a copyrighted television program when it retransmits a broadcast of that program to thousands of paid subscribers over the Internet." This is "a major dispute on the right of the television industry to stop the Internet streaming of its copyrighted programs by a firm that does so without permission and without paying anything."

This case follows up on the United States Court of Appeals decision to not uphold an injunction that would have blocked Aereo's technology and business plans. Aereo welcomes its day in court. Aereo CEO and Founder Chet Kanojia said in a statement:

We said from the beginning that it was our hope that this case would be decided on the merits and not through a wasteful war of attrition. We look forward to presenting our case to the Supreme Court and we have every confidence that the Court will validate and preserve a consumer's right to access local over-the-air television with an individual antenna, make a personal recording with a DVR, and watch that recording on a device of their choice.

This case is critically important not only to Aereo, but to the entire cloud computing and cloud storage industry. The landmark Second Circuit decision in Cablevision provided much needed clarity for the cloud industry and as a result, helped foster massive investment, growth and innovation in the sector. The challenges outlined in the broadcasters' filings make it clear that they are using Aereo as a proxy to attack Cablevision itself and thus, undermine a critical foundation of the cloud computing and storage industry.

We believe that consumers have a right to use an antenna to access over-the-air television and to make personal recordings of those broadcasts. The broadcasters are asking the Court to deny consumers the ability to use the cloud to access a more modern-day television antenna and DVR. If the broadcasters succeed, the consequences to consumers and the cloud industry are chilling.

No matter who wins, the future of OTA and Internet TV will be changed forever. If Aereo wins, millions of users will gain Internet access to their local OTA broadcasts... and perhaps the major networks will encrypt or otherwise make their OTA presentations unwatchable to non-subscribers. This would be the end of free broadcast TV. Or, if ABC wins, it will have a freezing effect on Internet video.

It's far too early to say how a decision either way will play out. What I can say already is that this is going to change how we watch TV in the years to come.

Related Stories:

Topics: Networking, Legal

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Hard to see this standing, especially if the facilitator is making a profit

    off the subscriber. Would have been a more interesting case if the subscribers fee was only small enough to cover the facilitators infrastructure costs. Either way though they're smoking crack if they think they're doing anything but losing credibility trying to conflate the future of cloud services and storage with this. Those have a large growth curve ahead without aereo and it's ilk.
    Johnny Vegas
    • Oracle's Unbreakable Linux

      is based on Red Hat Linux and is making a profit.

      Is Oracle's Unbreakable Linux legal?
  • The cable guys hate Aereo...

    And with good reason. Aereo is basically doing the same thing that cable companies do: receiving television signals off the air and retransmitting them to customers. They are doing it in a much less efficient way: separate antennas and IP streams for each subscriber rather than a single head end and multicasting like the cable companies do. (Cable isn't using multicast IP but digital cable is doing the same thing using different standards.) If it is fair for Aereo to do this retransmission for free (and I believe it is) then it is unfair for cable companies to have to pay to retransmit broadcast television stations. (Cable companies also retransmit television content that is not broadcast to the public. Much of it is actually broadcast on satellites, but those broadcasts are encrypted and available only to paying subscribers. Those channels are outside the scope of this discussion.)

    Broadcasters are already getting paid for their content by advertising and product placement. Forcing companies to pay to distribute signals that they broadcast for free viewing is double dipping.
  • How does Aereo make their money?

    I'm certainly not allowed to walk into a bookstore, buy a copyrighted book, scan it to a server, then charge people X amount to come to my site and read it under the pretense that "I'm helping people conserve gas".

    Now the second question - what would Aereo do if I found a way to somehow stream the signals from their server onto my own, where I can now charge people a subscription, not Aereo, to watch from my server?
    • You can do that --- just use your own antenna.

      1. You can do that ... if the book is out of copyright. The bookstore is not yours, the book belongs to the book store, none of it belongs to you.

      Unlike the bookstore, the air waves are a public utility... ALL people are owners... If they don't want someone to receive it then they must pay the additional fees to make it private, and encrypt the transmissions. Which happens to be what the cable companies do... That is how they get the signals in the first place. They then have to pay the source of the signals for decryption...

      Of course, if networks (actually, it is the TV stations, not the networks - they get paid by the TV stations) did that then they would have a negligible audience and would go out of business.

      2. Just put up your own antenna and provide your own server. Since you are no longer using some one else's server, you should be in the clear.

      As a matter of fact, Areo is providing the stations a service - by providing a larger audience range than what the TV stations can do. The larger range provides a bigger audience for the advertisements.

      And they didn't even have to pay for it!
      • The airwaves are public utilities, but the broadcasts aren't.

        Electric and phone lines are "public utilities", yet it's illegal to tap into them for your own use.

        Aereo is free to capture and retransmit their own original programing, the difference here is that the over the air stations own the copyrights to the shows they broadcast, and thus the distribution/redistribution of the programs they own.

        And you answered my question by agreeing with it - "if the book is out of copyright".

        The shows being retransmitted are still in copyright, and thus you are beholden to the copyright owner's wishes.
        • If it is is illegal to use the airwaves "for free"

          Then ALL over the airwave use is illegal.

          No? So you CAN receive over the air TV transmissions free.

          And PVR use is also valid? Yes, it happens to be.

          THEN where the PVR is located is irrelevant.

          If I choose to rent a good location and place my PVR there, it is perfectly legal.

          If I choose to connect to my PVR remotely it is also perfectly legal. After all, I'm not giving anyone else access.

          If a group of people decide to share the rent of that location and use PVRs at that location remotely, then it is ALSO irrelevant.

          If the group chooses to hire someone to manage the PVRs at that location, then it is ALSO irrelevant.

          Do I have to OWN the PVR personally? Why no, it is perfectly legal to rent a PVR and use it.

          So if the person managing the PVRs happen to OWN the PVR I am renting then it is also irrelevant.

          The licenses for the airwave use is "for the public good". Therefore I am allowed to view them.

          How I view them is up to me.

          And you miss the difference between BOOK and BROADCAST.

          It is not allowed for me to copy a DVD for the same reason.

          A BROADCAST is sent to anyone that can receive it. If the owners of the information don't want just ANYONE, then they shouldn't BROADCAST it. Sell it on a DVD. No problem.
          • Yes, you are allowed to view them for free. You ARE NOT allowed

            to do anything other then that. You can record them and watch them later, (personal use), but beyond that, no.

            Here's an interesting link -


            "You also cannot further transmit the broadcast "to the public," so diverting a live video stream onto the Internet and streaming it to the world is right out. Otherwise, you're fine."

            Odd that you can get in so much trouble with a simple OTA transmission. The fact that it's broadcast OTA for free means I should be able to do whatever I want with it.
            but there are those darn copyright laws, again. I don't own the transmitted show, just the hardware I view it on.

            That's the issue you miss - it's one thing for a company to come in and setup an antenna product for you TV that receives the signal in the form in which it is intended, but something different to take that material in it's original broadcast form and convert it from that original signal to a different one and send it down the internet for a monthly charge.

            Whether you like it or not, the content owner has the right to determine how they want their content delivered to your home, not you or a third party operator.
          • Except this is "personal use".

            Your very own link:

            "You also cannot further transmit the broadcast "to the public," so diverting a live video stream onto the Internet and streaming it to the world is right out. Otherwise, you're fine."

            Except Aereo isn't streaming it "to the world" - they're streaming it to *you*. And only to you. Basically, Aereo is a "PVR for hire" service and not a broadcast service. I think that counts as "otherwise", which would in turn mean that Aereo will be "fine".
        • Re "[O]ver the air stations own the copyrights to the shows they broadcast"

          They only own the copyright to the shows they originate, such as local news and feature content. Originators (e.g., TV networks) own the copyrights to the shows (typically prime-time) they deliver to local affiliates.
        • Aereo is renting an Antenna

          What Aereo is doing is renting you an antenna and a DVR. This would be no different than if your apartment building required you to "rent" a spot on the roof to put up your own antenna to receive the signals. As for the DVR, again, it is for YOUR programs only. They are not combining recordings are retransmitting - if you and your neighbor each record the Superbowl for your own personal watching later, there would be TWO copies on Aereo's servers. The only difference really is the location of the hardware - at your own house / apartment, or down at Aereo's data center.
    • Yeah, the key here may be

      The fact it's over the air. I think the law still holds that over the air broadcasts are public domain, meaning you can pretty much do whatever you want with them as far as redistribution goes.
      • No. That isn't right.

        You can do FOR YOUR OWN USE whatever you want.

        But you can't redistribute it. You CAN, in most cases, use it in a parody rework... But even then, it depends on how well and how completely you do it.
  • I'm not grasping the argument

    I honestly don't see these broadcasters having a leg to stand on! What if I set up the antenna myself and adapted a inline DVR which is and can be done? What difference is there to pay someone like aereo to do that for you? Nothing has changed really in the process! Just the person setting it up!
    Mike Ohara
    • The fact that you think it is the same

      ... shows how little you understand about this issue.

      It is nowhere near the same.
      • Exactly the same

        wackoae - if you are so wise, explain how what Aereo is doing is different? The only difference is the location of the equipment - at Aereo's data center vs. at your own home / apartment.
    • it's called "rebroadcast", which the copyright holder determines

      they allow it to be recorded in the home via VCR/DVR and to be viewed later at no charge.

      The thing is that the networks did not give Aereo permission to take their signals and rebroadcast it via the internet to god know where, Aereo took that upon themselves.
      • You kind of missed it...

        It isn't a rebroadcast.

        Each customer has his own stream - not a broadcast stream to multiple recipients.
        • Technically speaking, streaming is the same as broadcasting, with the

          difference being that, each person decides when he/she is going to be receiving that broadcast "signal".

          So, if a million people were getting OTA broadcasting of a show, all at the same time, and another million people decided to wait for streaming of the same program, then the total "broadcasting" of the program was 2 million. Convenience streaming doesn't change the equation for what broadcasting really is intended to accomplish, and that is to reach as many people as possible with content. The content is what people are after, and how they get it, and when they get it, is immaterial. The content providers have a right to protect what they produce, and there are already regulations which protect those content providers.

          If a person were to rent a movie, and use wi-fi to broadcast that content, then the FBI would be after that person's butt immediately after someone discovered and reported the "theft" of content. People can record and play back OTA content "for themselves", but, selling and rebroadcasting is prohibited.
          • They aren't selling, nor are they rebroadcasting.

            It is no different that placing your DVR somewhere the signal is, and then downloading the results.

            You pay rent for the location, and support of the DVR.