Although this article in the Washington Post calls the internet start-up company obscure, it’s hardly obscure anymore. Aereo makes big waves in the technology industry as it shows up in court for the suit brought against it by the nation’s public broadcast companies, including ABC, CBS, and NBC whose claims that Aereo is effectively pirating their productions are prompting Aereo to lawyer up with big time copyright attorneys in San Antonio, one of the eleven cities in which Aereo operates. And all the fuss is apparently over an old-school idea: the antenna.
Well, thousands of antennas. Aero is only two years old, but it’s impact is legendary, and its use of “thousands of tiny antennas to capture broadcast television programs, then convert them into online video streams for subscribers” has public television providers up in arms. Why? Because Aereo doesn’t pay licensing fees to the networks, which has left it in the center of a controversy being debated in the highest court in the nation by copyright attorneys of San Antonio and potentially impacting the future of TV.
The suit was heard by Supreme Court Justices last week, though they’re expected to debate the case for some time. The future of Aereo tends to be bleak, at least according to analysts and business lawyers like Dwight Williams who cite the previous statements issued by the Obama Administration as an ill portent for the internet start-up. Having stated that Aereo “transmits copyrighted broadcast programs to the public, without the authorization of the copyright holders,” it designates the company as “liable for infringement.” With the Justices potential to lean heavily on the government’s position, it could be a grim ruling for Aereo.
But Aereo’s own copyright attorneys in San Antonio claim that they have a solid case. They are contending that they are simply supplying antennas to individual consumers living in the three Texas cities, as well as New York, Miami, Boston, Baltimore, and Atlanta, among others. Aereo’s “customers pick the shows they want to watch, and Aereo assigns them an antenna and positions it to capture the desired show from local airwaves.” Claiming they are only a mediator of private performances, since each antenna rebroadcasts a show to just one subscriber online, Aereo’s copyright attorneys in San Antonio are attempting to navigate around the fees and cumbersome regulations incurred by cable companies.
One of the chief executives of Aereo says it’s not about copyright anyway. Since subscribers still see all the originally broadcast advertisements, the company “is not denying the networks of their main source of revenue. ‘Broadcasters can’t double dip.’” One step further, some Aereo enthusiasts are calling the Obama administration’s siding with the public broadcast companies nothing more than governmentally sanctioned monopolies. While that opinion may be open to interpretation, the issue isn’t likely to go over with simplified arguments, given the $3.3 billion in revenues to the broadcast networks gleaned from fees charged to cable and satellite firms re-broadcasting original programs.
Is Aereo’s a case of technological innovation butting up against archaic notions of intellectual property? Or is it trampling on copyrights and undermining the concept behind free and local television? The Supreme Court may tell us which by the end of June.