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How The Supreme Court’s Decision Killed Aereo TV

Photo courtesy of Jan Ramroth via Flickr

The Supreme Court has ruled in the favor of broadcasters over TV-streaming service Aereo’s copyright violations.

(Originally published on April 17, 2014; updated 4/22/14 & 6/26/14 to reflect Supreme Court’s hearing and decision.)

On April 22, 2014, the case of major broadcasters vs the tiny TV streaming service Aereo was heard by the Supreme Court. On June 25, they ruled in favor or broadcasters 6-3.

To understand the upset Aereo has caused and what the court’s ruling means for the future of TV broadcasting, first we must understand how it works, and why networks called it illegal.

What does/did Aereo do?

Aereo delivers TV for $8 a month over the Internet by renting out miniature antennas and cloud-based DVRs that consumers can use to record and watch over-the-air content.

Screenshot from Aereo.com
Screenshot from Aereo.com

It’s a method of cloud computing that lets people use their devices to browse local channels and store shows to watch later, or at a very slight delay.

The problem? Many, including the U.S. Justice Department, see the service as blatant copyright infringement.

Broadcasters say that the firm is illegally capturing over-the-air signals and rebroadcasting them without paying the same fees as satellite and cable companies do, threatening their own ability to control fees and generate advertising.

But as with a Supreme Court case back in 1984 that ruled in favor of the VCR, Aereo and others argue that the shape of broadcasting is changing, and that a court ruling against it could be bad news for all sorts of cloud storage and streaming services, as well as for people that are generally not down with expensive cable bundles.

Here’s each side of the argument

Broadcasters’ claim:

“Public performances” are protected by copyright. By picking up TV signals and streaming them to users, Aereo is infringing on the rights of major broadcasting companies and illegally redistributing protected content without cost.

Aereo’s Counter-Claim

By renting individual antennas, Aereo is streaming legally protected “private performances” for each subscriber. When cloud-based DVR services were declared legal in 2008, Aereo argues, it was determined that consumers have the right to store and replay public performances.

Aereo likely argued that by letter of the law, they are not actually rebroadcasting, but legally renting a DVR-type satellite tool to users, a technicality others view as a legal loophole.

Now that Aereo has lost, what will happen?

Aereo will likely be finished, as backer Barry Dillon said there is no “Plan B” for the company.

Some believe the decision will set new technologies back, with tangible losses in cloud and DVR services, and that innovative and growing startups could lose chance to compete with media giants.

Aereo CEO and founder Chet Kanojia called the decision a “massive setback for the American consumer,” adding that they “will continue to fight for our consumers and fight to create innovative technologies that have a meaningful and positive impact on our world.”

Even so, Justice Stephen Breyer said in the majority opinion that the ruling should not spell trouble for other cloud-based content services.

But the ultimate implications for the future of TV, and what’s left of Aereo, if any, will be spelled out in due time.

Jennifer Markert