WASHINGTON – In a win for broadcasters and big media, the Supreme Court on Wednesday grounded the streaming service Aereo, ruling that the start-up violates the Copyright Act by recording and streaming over-the-air TV to subscribers’ devices.
The court’s 6-3 majority concluded that Aereo effectively operates as a cable service and, therefore, is covered by the copyright law.
“Aereo’s activities are substantially similar to the (cable) companies that Congress amended the (Copyright) Act to reach,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority.
Breyer also said, “The court does not believe its decision will discourage the emergence or use of different kinds of technologies.”
Some content providers – including 21st Century Fox, the Walt Disney Co., CBS and Gannett – were quick to praise the court’s decision.
“This decision gives the creative community greater confidence that copyright law cannot be so simply evaded and restores the proper balance to the system,” according to a statement from the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, a labor union.
Aereo’s system is made up of servers, trans-coders and thousands of dime-sized antennas housed in a central warehouse. Aereo says the service it offers is no different from old-fashioned TV antennas picking up broadcasts.
Its argument before the Supreme Court focused on the definition of a private performance versus a public one. By assigning each user an antenna that then records a unique copy of the broadcast, it’s participating in a private performance, it said. The court’s majority didn’t buy it.
“Aereo is not simply an equipment provider,” Breyer reasoned. “When Aereo streams the same television program to multiple subscribers, it transmits a performance to all of them.”
Broadcasters bluntly called Aereo’s technology a loophole to get around copyright laws. Broadcasters including ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox filed federal lawsuits only two weeks after the start-up service launched in 2012.
They argued that the start-up steals their copyrighted content by pulling TV signals from the airwaves of local stations and allowing customers to record shows online and stream them on their devices. “The networks make dire predictions about Aereo,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in dissent. “We are in no position to judge the validity of those self-interested claims or to foresee the path of future technological development.”
He used the example of a copy shop to illustrate his point, saying there’s a difference between legally copying a 10-year-old’s drawings and duplicating a famous artist’s copyrighted photographs. Similar examples, from library cards to valet parking, were used in the decision in an attempt to explain the complex legal problems behind copyright ownership.
Cloud computing advocates have warned that an Aereo loss might mean that popular online services such as Dropbox and Google Drive will be caught in the crossfire.