Supreme Court Deathmatch: Aereo vs. The Entire Broadcast Network Industry

Aereo-Logo-2013For the last six months, a friend of mine has relentlessly tried to get me to ditch my Xfinity hookup and replace it with Aereo, an online TV subscription service. To hear him tell it, it’s the greatest thing ever invented - immediate and live access to broadcast news, sports, and TV shows from the big 10 networks such as NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, PBS (no cable channels though), all for a measly $8 a month. I think I’ll wait though. I’m happy with my yesteryear technology and I derive a certain amount of comfort from mindlessly flipping through hundreds of channels I’ll never watch. More importantly, Aereo may not even exist in six months. That’s because tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc. And if Aereo loses, according to its own CEO, the company is kaput.

For those who don’t know, Aereo is a startup that takes television broadcasts from networks and retransmits them to you live via the internet. You can also store these broadcasts in a cloud-based DVR, all for the cost of two cups of coffee. As it turns out, even though you’re paying Aereo, Aereo is not paying the networks; it's just ripping these broadcast signals out of the air and streaming them to you. That didn’t make the networks too happy, so they banded together and sued Aereo for copyright infringement.

This isn’t an easy case and I don’t envy the justices the amount of work they'll have to even understand the technology at play (read this article if you want to know how behind-the-times the SCOTUS really is). Ultimately, this case turns on whether Aereo’s retransmission of broadcast television constitutes a “public or private performance” of copyrighted works. Private performance is perfectly legal, like when you buy a DVD and show it in your home. Even if you invite 100 friends over to watch, you’re safe. But let’s say you rent a theater and charge for admission - that would make the performance public, and that becomes copyright infringement.

In this case, the networks argue that Aereo’s actions constitute public performance because:

  1. Aereo streams “live TV” to a wide variety of subscribers;
  2. Aereo charges fees for its services;
  3. Unlike other retransmitters, Aereo doesn’t pay licensing fees to the networks for permission to broadcast their content.

In opposition, Aereo argues that it does not transmit “to the public.” It transmits only to its paying user base. Furthermore, the choice about what gets retransmitted at any given time is made by the subscriber, not Aereo. Some lower courts have already sided with Aereo, but if I’m being totally honest, I empathize with the networks, even though siding with a corporate copyright holder gives me the willies. Creating and broadcasting content is back-breakingly hard and terrifically expensive. Even some of those low-budget reality shows for third-rate cable channels that look like they were shot on iPhones… oftentimes they have budgets in the tens of thousands of dollars per  episode. And there are lots of working-class content creators behind those shows. Remember, most people in the entertainment industry aren’t millionaires; they’re regular people working paycheck to paycheck, relying on a steady stream of work from networks and studios to pay their bills. It’s easy to think of the producers and directors and say “who cares?” But the people who get hurt first and hardest are the below-the-line talent: the grips, boom operators, location managers, scouts, production assistants, etc. What will happen to those jobs if the networks believe that pouring money into original content is no longer a profitable business model? And if you’re one of the networks, do you want to continue operating in an industry where it’s permissible for competitors to poach your signal and rebroadcast your content without owing you a fee for your trouble?

I don't know what's going to happen, but in a corporate-friendly court like this one, I can see the Supreme Court buying an argument that Aereo’s continued existence will irreparably harm the bottom lines of not just the networks, but the big telecoms like Comcast and Time Warner (soon to be a single world-killing behemoth). I don’t want to see Aereo go down because the use of technology to better peoples' lives is an intrinsic part of the American ethos. But I also don’t want to see a wholesale dismantling of the entire entertainment industry (alarmist I know, but still possible).

I’ll update this post with some thoughts after Tuesday’s oral arguments. In the meantime, I’m going to stick with my cable hook up, and I’ll tell my friend to  start budgeting for cable again if Aereo goes down the poop chute.

Reading Contracts Sucks But You Should Do It Anyway Or MTV Will Broadcast Your Address To A Million People

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Let's do some role-playing. Pretend you're a young man named Tristan Watson who has agreed to participate in an MTV reality show called True Life: I'm a Chubby Chaser, a doc about men who prefer dating large women. Let's also pretend you agree to do the show on the condition that MTV withholds your identity, referring to you only as "Tee" during the broadcast. This agreement is made via handshake, but the anonymity clause is never incorporated into the final written contract, which you sign. Once the show airs, you discover that not only is your full name used, but MTV also broadcasts your address and even your apartment number. You receive death threats and you lose your job. You sue the network for lying to you about its promise of anonymity and for all the harm it has wrought in your life, but because the contract also includes an agreement that you "will not sue the network for any reason," you lose big time.

Sadly, this is no game. There is a real Tristan Watson and everything I just said actually happened to him. Watson's experience is not a novel one. Contracts that broadly favor one side happen quite a bit in the entertainment world where one party (i.e. MTV) has considerably more bargaining power than the other (i.e. Watson). These lopsided contracts are even more prevalent in the nonsensical world of reality TV, where American teens will sign away their birthright for a chance to become a celebrity and the networks make absolutely no attempt to be reasonable in contracting with said teens. Unfortunately for Watson and those like him, even if the contract hadn't contained a promise not to sue, there are two inter-related concepts in contract law that ensure he was destined to lose his lawsuit against MTV.

  1. Absent extraordinary circumstances such as fraud, U.S. courts presume that every party to a contract has read and understood the terms. So pleading ignorance when you discover you agreed to something you didn't intend almost never works. Had Watson taken a few minutes to read the contract before signing it, he would have discovered that the anonymity clause was nowhere to be found and might have avoided the drama following his appearance on True Life. This is a shining example of why you should always always always read your contract, even the ones you write yourself.
  2. In situations where two parties agree verbally to a term, but never actually integrate it into the final contract, that term is not considered valid once the contract is written and signed. This is called the parol evidence rule, and it's almost impossible to overcome if incorporating that term would change the contract.

Look I get it. Reading contracts is no fun. They're boring, they're long, they contain a lot of junk, and they're usually written in legalese, making them tough to understand. Believe it or not, lawyers hate reading contracts for the same reasons. It's true! Why do you think we charge you so much money to draft and review your agreements? Because it sucks!! That's why mobile apps specializing in generating simple contracts (like Shake) are making a big splash nowadays.

Sucky or not, however, there's no getting around it. Whether you're a high-bargaining party or a low-bargaining party, then only way to preserve your interests is to get comfy reading contracts. There's no better way to ensure that harmful provisions weren't snuck in there when your back was turned. Because once you put your signature on that piece of paper, that's all she wrote my friend. You are bound to the terms in that contract whether or not you read it.

[Author's Note: I should add that if Watson could prove MTV acted fraudulently, the entire contract would be invalidated, including the promise not to sue the network. Since Watson lost his lawsuit, I'm guessing that he couldn't meet that burden.]