Aereo loses at supreme court, deemed like "traditional cable company"

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that TV streaming service Aereo is illegal, siding with broadcasters who claimed the company breached copyright law.

Aereo rents out tiny antennas, installed in datacenter equipment, used to capture over-the-air broadcast signals and allow customers to watch TV from any device. The antennas, it argued, made the arrangement little different to everyday home TV receiving and recording.

TV broadcasters, however, claimed that it was exploiting a legal loophole and was effectively a cable company--and 6 of the 9 justices agreed, finding that the service was not merely an equipment provider.

"Rather, Aereo, and not just its subscribers, “perform[s]” (or “transmit[s]”). Aereo’s activities are substantially similar to those of the CATV companies that Congress amended the Act to reach," the majority wrote in their verdict. While acknowledging that streams were user-initiated rather than broadcast, "the dissent’s copy shop argument, in whatever form, makes too much out of too little. Given Aereo’s overwhelming likeness to the cable companies targeted by the 1976 amendments, this sole technological difference between Aereo and traditional cable companies does not make a critical difference here."

Dissenting were conservative justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito: "Unlike [cable] services, Aereo does not provide a prearranged assortment of movies and television shows. Rather, it assigns each subscriber an antenna that — like a library card — can be used to obtain whatever broadcasts are freely available. Some of those broadcasts are copyrighted; others are in the public domain. The key point is that subscribers call all the shots: Aereo’s automated system does not relay any program, copyrighted or not, until a subscriber selects the program and tells Aereo to relay it."

The outcome is expected to have a significant impact on how shows are delivered online. More analysis of the verdict: Techcrunch's Jordan Crook says Aereo was clearly how consumers preferred to watch TV; The Verge's's Jacob Kastrenakes says the company is done for.

Notable Replies

  1. "Man, you old people just don't get it," should not be my reaction to Supreme Court cases.

  2. "Scalia, Thomas, and Alito got it right" should not be my reaction to Supreme Court cases.

  3. Has there been any kind of technical review done about whether Aereo actually works the way their marketing literature wants us to believe? From the outside I would expect that what they actually do is store a single copy of high quality streams and then synthesize a "per user stream" from that based on what that user's antenna was supposedly watching. The idea that they can install a bunch of tiny antennas IN a data center and get a good enough signal for thousands of users and THEN independently store copies of each stream from each antenna just in case the user wants to watch it seems impractical and absurd.

    Perhaps this IS the grand new age of digital television and I'm just unlucky at how badly my cellphone works inside a brick building, never mind a data center full of metal cages, cabling, and ductwork.

  4. I cut the cable tv cord a year ago and I have used Aereo for the past two months. I really do think every user had their own antenna, and it wasn't that great of an experience compared to the antenna in my attic. It would often look bad and drop-out at the highest resolution offered, and streaming the lower resolution had less drop-outs but of course did not look so great. Of course that could just have been Comcast throttling down all feeds coming from Aereo. I let them have my $8.00 though because they were poking established media in the face. On a side note, the HD I get with my home antenna is way better than the HD Comcast provided.

  5. Disney will ensure that Aereo can't transmit ABC without the ESPN bundle....

    ABC ticks me off, really. They'e got a space on my AppleTV, yet I can't actually view the material unless I use a cable provider. I'm willing to analogize for this sort of behavior on the part of Lifetime, History, A&E and a bunch of other "cable channels", but ABC?

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