Aereo, the company that rebroadcasts over-the-air programming online using tiny antennae, has received plenty of media coverage recently regarding its legal battles with broadcasters. But ahead of a Supreme Court showdown for its very existence, the company has decided to try and shape the conversation itself, releasing a breakdown of its best legal arguments on a new website called “Protect My Antenna.”
Using large print, cute little cartoons, and simplified legalize, the site outlines the basics about Aereo’s service, and its argument for legality. “Since the dawn of television, consumers have had a fundamental right to watch over-the-air broadcast television via an individual antenna,” the site explains. It goes on to argue why Aereo is in the right, and the broadcasters determined to shut the service down, are in the wrong.
In the simplest terms, Aereo is nothing more than a way to watch broadcast TV (the same content free to anyone with an HD antenna) on your own time. Its service employs a proprietary antenna system and cloud DVRs to beam broadcasts to your computer or mobile device for a fee of $8-12/month. Aereo has never received licensing permission, or paid fees for its retransmission of broadcast programming.
Aereo’s new site cuts quickly to the crux of its defense, allowing users to read the cliff notes of an argument that centers prominently around two basic legal precedents. The first is the 1976 copyright act, which protects private use of copyrighted material, and condemns public use. Broadcasters have continuously argued Aereo’s service constitutes a public retransmission of its content, and therefore an illegal breach of copyright law. Aereo argues that because the content is available only to the individual user who created the recording, it is private, and therefore legal.
To emphasize the point, the site compares Aereo’s cloud-based recording model to Betamax’s home recording technology, which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of back in the early days of home recording machines.
“The broadcasters are asking the Court to deny consumers the ability to use the cloud to access a more modern-day television antenna and (recording method) in order to protect what they believe are their most lucrative business models,” the site reads.
Indeed, those lucrative business models are at the heart of the matter. While over-the-air programming is free to all with a basic digital antenna, broadcasters like CBS, NBC, and Fox sell their content to cable and satellite companies, as well as internet services like Hulu, creating revenue streams worth billions. Aereo not only circumvents that system, but also threatens the ad revenue broadcasters receive, and the companies argue that Aereo’s service does “irreparable harm” to their content.
If you want to dig deeper into the bones of Aereo’s service and its legal arguments, the company’s new site also hosts a multitude of links to opinions, and Amicus briefs that explain its side of the story.
What’s at stake
In a plea that almost feels like a scare tactic, Aereo argues that the coming trial holds in the balance not only its own business model, but the very legality of cloud computing as a whole. “If the broadcasters succeed, the consequences to American consumers and the cloud industry are chilling,” the site warns.
It’s hard to imagine that a Supreme Court victory for broadcasters in this case would threaten the cloud industry that we all depend on as a whole. Then again, the current sitting Justices have shown a consistent lack of understanding when it comes to the basic workings of modern technology, including core fundamentals like, say, email. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the decision could be worded in a way that threatens the cloud industry.
But even if cloud computing isn’t in any danger, the results of the coming trial could create a shockwave of sorts that will shift the future of Internet TV, no matter how the court rules. If Aereo loses, the company has claimed it will shutdown for good, and with it dies a new pathway to the future of online media. If it wins, Aereo has promised to expand from its dozen or so territories to become available in cities all across the U.S.
Vindication for Aereo will also come at a price for the company, however. Aereo will face new competition in the landscape that arises from a Supreme Court victory, with competitors popping up on all sides. CBS has already vowed to create its own online offering similar to Aereo’s should the decision swing that way, and other services such as cable and satellite providers will likely follow suit as well. While that may be bad for Aereo, it could be good for consumers – choice almost always is.
Either way, the case that begins next week will no doubt have lasting implications about how we all receive our news and entertainment. Stay with us to keep pace with the story as the trial gets underway.