Aereo and the Supreme Court

What is Aereo, and why are broadcasters trying to shut it down?

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday about Aereo, the internet television service that is threatening to upend the television industry.  The controversy around the service is that Aereo doesn’t pay licensing fees to the broadcast networks that produce the programs like cable companies do.  Instead, they utilize thousands of tiny antennas to capture and convert broadcast television programs into online video streams and broadcast them to their subscribers.

The broadcast companies have fought Aereo in court for several years, stating that they are breaking copyright law requiring the permission of copyright owners for “public performances” of their work. The law defines such performances to include retransmission to the public. Aereo argues that it shouldn’t have to pay the fees because it is an equipment provider rather than a retransmitter, and is therefore not breaking copyright law.

However, the justices seem skeptical of the deliberate inefficiency of using thousands of antennae when one would suffice. “… your technological model is based solely on circumventing legal prohibitions that you don’t want to comply with,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to Aereo’s lawyer.

The impact of a ruling against Aereo could be far-reaching, with companies such as Google and Apple voicing their concerns over potential implications. The justices were clearly concerned with the idea that future technological innovation could be negatively impacted, with Justice Stephen G. Breyer saying

“What disturbs me on the other side 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.”

So the question is: Does Aereo violate copyright laws? A decision is due by the end of June.