There is an interesting case that is being heard today before the US Supreme Court in which technology and copyright laws come into conflict. It concerns a firm named Aereo that is marketing a small antenna that can be connected to your mobile device that can then pick up programming that is being broadcast over the air by the TV networks. In other words, you are no longer tethered to your TV but can watch anywhere and even record and save for later viewing.
How it works is that the company takes the broadcast signals and then relays it to you by means of a small transmitter that is matched to your individual antenna. This service charges a small monthly fee and is currently being offered in 11 cities and plans to expand to more.
The broadcast TV networks are furious, saying that Aereo is rebroadcasting their content without permission and without payment and that this violates their copyright. Aereo says that these signals are already being given away free over the air and that they are just making it more convenient for viewers to watch it like digital video recorders do, so what’s the problem?
Aereo won its case in the lower courts and broadcasters are threatening to stop over the air transmission if the Supreme Court rules against them. Amy Howe has a nice explanation of all the legal issues involved.
Let’s start with some basic principles of copyright law. Copyright law is intended to strike a balance. We want to encourage people to write books, compose music, and (among other things) produce TV shows for the public to enjoy. But at the same time, we want to provide an incentive for people to do these things. One way that copyright law does so is by giving the owner of a copyright the exclusive right to perform the work in public. So you can’t, for example, perform a copyrighted play without the owner’s permission – which will often require a fee, known as a “license.”
ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and other broadcasters went to court to stop Aereo from streaming their copyrighted programs to its subscribers. But the court of appeals ruled in Aereo’s favor, ruling that, because the company is providing each of its subscribers with an individual transmission of a copyrighted program, it isn’t transmitting performances to the “public”; it is just sending out many thousands of separate “private” performances. A dissenting judge sharply criticized Aereo, writing that its system was a “sham” because “there is no technologically sound reason to use a multitude of tiny individual antennas rather than one central antenna.”
The Supreme Court is not at its best when dealing with modern technology so it is anybody’s guess how this will turn out.