The Aereo Internet TV legal battle: What’s happening, and why it matters

Aereo Internet TV“No cable required.” That’s the battlecry that Internet startup, Aereo, foregrounds on its website. The company aims to offer live, uber-cheap, streaming Internet TV to users without a cable service provider. Not surprisingly, major networks pounced on the company earlier this year, with FOX, ABC, and several others filing a joint request for an injunction, alleging that Aereo’s service was in violation of copyright laws.

While the networks’ initial request was shot down by U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan back in July, the plaintiffs promptly appealed, and the case is now proceeding in the Southern District Court of New York.

For a long time, the cable networks have been holed up with the door barred as the collective weight of the rest of the world looks to break up the racket of bundled, subscription-based cable. Thus far, their fortifications have held, but this case might prove to be the breakthrough that many have been waiting for. Aereo Founder and CEO Chaitanya Kanojia believes it is. But even if Aereo isn’t the one delivering it, Kanojia seems confident that this technology won’t be held down. “Migration to online TV is inevitable, unquestionably,” he told Digital Trends. 

Kanojia hopes to bring about that inevitability through a technology that collects channel feeds via a bevy of miniaturized antennae, and allows users to tap into the collected signal and watch live TV over the web. The networks are arguing that what Aereo is doing is a form of rebroadcasting, which copyright laws have clearly deemed to be illegal without the original broadcaster’s consent. But Aereo protests that they’re merely providing the means for users to pluck the signal out of the air. 

The networks had a similar beef with Cablevision’s DVR service when it first debuted and brought legal action, but it was determined that Cablevision wasn’t rebroadcasting, but rather giving users access to a server that recorded content was stored on. Not surprisingly, that case has already come up in the current court proceeding. While Aereo tried to raise it as a precedent, the networks maintained it wasn’t comparable scenario, since Cablevision had the proper licenses to broadcast the content in the first place –  licenses which Aereo does not have, and never sought.

Another possible precedent in this battle would be the Sony Corp. of America vs Universal City Studios, Inc. case (1984), in which  the ruling stated that making copies of television programs via VCR for future viewing was protected under the fair use act.

Neither of these precedents is perfect for the occasion because – in large part – the occasion represents un-treaded territory. TV is evolving, and copyright laws haven’t really evolved with it. Though it might feel like Aereo is getting away with providing their service on a technicality, it’s a technicality that, short of changing the existing law, is difficult to subvert. Whether all of this passes the smell test or not, is immaterial.

This situation bears some similarity to file sharing. You’d have been hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t feel that it was tantamount to theft, but only after a long, attrition-filled legal battle, was the music industry able to curtail it in any meaningful way.

Despite the internet’s maturation into a ubiquitous, generation-defining entity, it still has bit of a wild west feel to it. Efforts to control it or legislate it have largely been convoluted and ineffectual. It’s a sector that seems to demand frontier justice, the administration of which is inhibited by a code of laws that is lagging conspicuously behind the technology it is meant to govern.

However you feel about the legality of what his company is doing, Kanojia certainly doesn’t come off as a crook. Quite the contrary. He comes off pragmatic and forthright; artifice doesn’t seem to be his game. He suggests that he’s merely taking the temperature of the times and acting accordingly, something he says TV networks have been reluctant to do. “They [networks] have a demonstrated an aversion to any new technology,” he argues.

No doubt we’re in for a long legal slog, but the fate of the pending injunction is a critical first step. If it’s shot down for a second time, what’s to stop dozens of other companies from doing exactly what Aereo is doing? The answer, uncomfortable as it may be, is nothing. Just as there was nothing to stop Kazaa or Limewire from following in Napster’s footsteps.

The law only provides you with so much protection out on the frontier, beyond which it’s essentially a dog-eat-dog world. Whether the networks can withstand this most recent siege remains to be seen. But however it turns out, it’s hard to imagine they can hold out for much longer.

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