Is Aereo Legal? Should It Be?

(Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and I could very easily be talking out of my ass here. Take everything you read here with a grain of salt.)

The Supreme Court is set to decide, at least in part, the fate of Aereo; plaintiffs’ amicus briefs were due Monday, Aereo will present its opening argument by March 26 with amicus briefs in their favor due by April 2, and oral arguments will begin on my birthday, April 22. For those not familiar with it, Aereo is the service that has set up tons of tiny antennas and rents each one out to each of its customers. Customers can view free, over-the-air TV from their personal antenna over the Internet on whatever Internet-connected device they wish, and record said over-the-air TV on Aereo’s cloud DVR. Aereo claims that it is merely helping people access the free, over-the-air TV they’re entitled to, but if you think the foregoing description sounds like an unnecessary technological kludge, you’d be right. Broadcasters have been suing Aereo in any court they can, convinced that Aereo is getting away with not having to pay retransmission-consent fees cable operators are subject to, and fearful that cable operators might decide to do the same thing to get away from retransmission consent fees themselves.

That this is the issue is important, because the issue being presented to the Supreme Court is the notion that Aereo is engaging in a “public performance” in violation of copyright law. And as kludgey as the foregoing description is, it would be ridiculous to argue that it is based on it; Aereo isn’t engaging in any sort of “public performance” beyond what broadcasters are already doing with their free over-the-air signals, and any notion that what people do with their personal DVR service constitutes any sort of “public performance” is ludicrous, not to mention contradictory to past court decisions. In fact, it’s been argued that a decision against Aereo on this count could set a dangerous precedent that could preclude other technologies such as Slingbox.

Let’s be clear here. Aereo is clearly trying to take advantage of a loophole in the retransmission consent (not copyright) rules, and if it keeps winning in the courts Congress is going to have to step in, if only because it could render the retransmission consent regime unenforceable. Given that Congress is likely to close the loophole on which Aereo rests anyway, the Supreme Court doesn’t need to step in in order to kill Aereo. As such, it should avoid a decision that results in any sort of unintended consequences just to kill Aereo. The Supreme Court could rule on whether or not the loophole Aereo claims to have found exists, but it’s not its place to legislate it out of existence.

Broadcasters have argued that an earlier court decision in favor of Cablevision’s cloud DVR service doesn’t apply here, because Cablevision paid for the copyrighted content. But what about someone with an over-the-air antenna hooked up to a Slingbox? What has that person done to “pay for the copyrighted content”? Nothing, at least not to the broadcasters. Yet it’s obvious that such a situation is fully legal and within the intent of the law: Congress has mandated that television signals broadcast over-the-air be available free for anyone with an antenna to pick up, and the Betamax decision established the legality of recording content for personal use.

To close the loophole on which Aereo rests, Congress would need to figure out what differentiates the above situation from what Aereo is doing. One way it could do so is by noting that Aereo is charging for access to free over-the-air TV. In other words, Aereo is making money off of broadcasters’ free over-the-air signals, and so is bound to kick some money back to them. If Aereo were really interested in just helping people access the free over-the-air TV they’re entitled to from their own personal antenna, they wouldn’t be charging rent for access to that antenna (which implies that Aereo, not the consumer, actually “owns” that antenna). But that has nothing to do with copyright, and if that’s not what retransmission-consent law says already, that’s not the place for the Supreme Court (or any court) to decide that it does.

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  1. […] personally felt that, while Aereo was clearly trying to take advantage of a loophole in the law, it was the place of Congress, not the Supreme Court, to close it, and it sounds like the commenters on (the very liberal) Daily Kos agree with me. But I don’t […]

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