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Supreme Court to decide the future of Internet TV

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.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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