Like the case I discussed last week, the Supreme Court case American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc. somewhat went under the radar. However, this one is notable in its implications for new technologies and copyright law.
A little background on the case: Aereo, founded in 2012, is a subscription service that provided a device to pick up broadcast television signals. Subscribers could watch these broadcasts on any digital device and record them in a personal DVR. Aereo contended this was simply the equivalent to picking up broadcast signals like a TV antenna, but broadcasters argued it was rebroadcasting their content, and therefore copyright infringement.
Aereo survived a few lower court battles, but the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the company’s business model was, in fact, infringing on broadcasters’ copyrights. Several tech and political writers decried the ruling. One article even described it as equivalent to if the Supreme Court had ruled against the constitutionality of the VCR in 1984.
I don’t think the Court made a bad decision.
Let’s examine the comparison to that landmark VCR case (Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc.). In That decision, the Court ruled that recording programs for private home use was fair use. To record any program to sell or screen publicly is still very much illegal (remember those FBI warnings on DVDs and VHS tapes before them?).
Aereo wasn’t simply picking up the broadcasts, but in effect rebroadcasting them for a price, which, without permission, is clearly copyright infringement. While it might sound lame to side with big corporate broadcasters, I understand that their livelihood depends on creating programming for monetary gain.
The effect of this decision on the tech world, I think, is that it might make it more difficult for small startup services to get off the ground, as the fees to rebroadcast programming are inhibitively expensive. As for consumers, they’re in no danger of missing out on their favorite shows. There are plenty of other streaming service providers like Netflix or Hulu. Some networks even broadcast their shows for free on their websites. And those are just the legal options available on the web.