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.