Is There a Place for Common Sense in Supreme Court Decisions?

The Supreme Court Wednesday ruled 6-3 against Aereo, declaring the start-up’s array of miniature antennas available for rent to consumers in violation of copyright law. Astoundingly, the three dissenters were Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, three of the court’s more conservative members. If you had to pick one person to symbolize the modern Supreme Court’s tendency to favor moneyed interests over ordinary Americans, the law, intent of the Constitution, and precedent be damned, it would probably be Scalia, followed by Thomas, then Alito and Chief Justice Roberts neck-in-neck. I would never have expected the conservatives to actually believe what they say they do enough to stand with the consumer and the scrappy, innovative start-up at the expense of the big, multi-national conglomerates, and as much as Democratic politicians may be in bed with Hollywood, I never would have expected every last one of the liberal justices to stand with the big corporations against the ordinary American. I know President Obama’s Justice Department filed a brief supporting broadcasters, but that was widely seen as disappointing, not sadly expected; I suspect this is an issue on which the Democratic decision-makers are well out of step with their rank and file. Maybe I’m just na├»ve (support in Congress and opposition among the public to SOPA was, after all, largely bipartisan), but it would be hard for me to deal with it if this turned out to be an issue on which I stand with conservatives and against Democrats.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Rather, I want to talk about the tendency for pro-Aereo corners of the blogosphere (as well as Aereo itself) to decry the decision as being obviously wrong, to gloss over the sketchier elements of what Aereo was trying to do, take its own description of it at face value, and dismiss the majority’s reasoning as the “looks-like-a-duck test“, to speak of Aereo’s setup being designed to follow the law as opposed to “going around” it as though that were more than a semantic distinction. One of the things Americans don’t like about the legal system is the tendency to create overly complicated documents written in horrendously obtuse language with no resemblance to anything ordinary Americans could recognize so that people can get off on obscure technicalities. But when the Supreme Court finally looks past the technicalities and boils things down to what they actually are, but we happen to be on the side that wanted to take advantage of those technicalities, suddenly we want the court to follow the obtuse legal language, ignore what we’re actually trying to do, and let us skirt through the loophole?

I 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 think we’re giving the position the majority accepted enough credit. Leaving aside the technicalities of how it all works, what Aereo was selling was the ability to watch broadcast television stations, regardless of whether you had the ability to view them at your current location if you had an antenna, indeed without you needing to worry about having an antenna or where it was located. You, the viewer, don’t see where Aereo’s antenna is and don’t even necessarily know anything about where Aereo is getting the signals from. All you know is that you are giving Aereo money and they are supplying you with a bunch of television channels you may or may not be able to receive otherwise. Boiled down to those facts, there really is very little difference between Aereo and basic cable service (and some of the things Aereo had said about potentially carrying cable channels didn’t really help their case).

What this shows is that our communications and copyright laws are woefully outdated and rooted in assumptions that don’t hold water, that failed to anticipate technological developments that rendered the technological distinctions encoded in the law obsolete. The entire Aereo affair had a company resorting to technological contortions to provide a fairly basic service there was a clear demand for and broadcasters being undermined by the very nature of, and wanting to be rid of, their own nominal method of delivery, their own neglect of which helped create the demand for Aereo in the first place (and while they’ve won this battle, they may ultimately lose the war). The court said that if Aereo wanted relief they should go to Congress when they should have said that to the broadcasters, not only because that would have been the right approach but because the broadcasters would likely have been more able to get that relief. But putting the onus on Aereo does give Congress incentive to clear up a regulatory framework that assumes the primacy of the obsolete technology of cable television and undermines the potential of broadcasting, while creating perverse and unintentional disincentives for maximizing the distribution of content.

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  1. […] individual micro-antennas to various Internet-connected devices, broadcasters not only effectively sued it out of existence but threatened to remove their most valuable programming from broadcast and put it exclusively on […]

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