Copyright Law

Supreme Court dubious about Aereo's low-cost TV, but wary that ruling could curtail cloud technology


Those who envision a sea change in television viewing options if an Internet start-up prevails against major broadcasters in a U.S. Supreme Court case over low-cost access to network shows should perhaps prepare themselves for a disappointment.

While impressed with the ingenuity of Aereo’s legal arguments and use of technology, members of the nation’s top court appeared to agree with long-established television networks that the two-year-old start-up’s offerings to consumers amount to theft of networks’ broadcast rights, according to the Boston Globe (sub. req.) and the New York Times (reg. req.).

“Your technological model,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told Aereo during oral arguments Tuesday, “is based solely on circumventing legal prohibitions that you don’t want to comply with.”

And, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted, “You are the only player so far that doesn’t pay any royalties at any stage.”

The Globe provides a diagram of the way Aereo captures broadcast signals and sells them to customers in 11 cities for approximately $10 per month. Critical to the company’s business are thousands of tiny TV antennas assigned to individual customers, allowing them to see network shows or store them for later viewing. Although banned in some western states, the technology generally is not expressly prohibited. Aereo contends that its service essentially provides customers with a modern-day version of the same “rabbit ears” antennas that were commonly used atop TV sets in viewers’ homes for decades in the 20th century, before they became outdated, the newspapers explain.

While seemingly dubious about this argument, the nine justices were concerned that ruling for the broadcasters and finding that Aereo is violating copyright law could have unintended consequences if the court unduly restricts access to the cloud, the articles say.

“What disturbs me on the other side,” explained Justice Stephen G. Breyer, “is I don’t understand what the decision for you or against you when I write it is going to do to all kinds of other technologies.”

A divided three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled for Aereo last year.

The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times (opinion, sub. req.) and Washington Post (reg. req.) also have stories.

Earlier coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Does Aereo’s Internet TV service violate network copyright? SCOTUS to decide”

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