Opinion: Broadcasters sue to stop another online TV service


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That didn’t take long.

Eight television networks and local broadcasters in New York filed suit Thursday against Aereo, a company that announced plans two weeks ago to deliver live local television programming online. The lawsuit seeks to block Aereo from launching its service, which it had planned to do this month.

Formerly known as Bamboom, Aereo hoped to offer a low-cost alternative to cable to people who can’t tune in local broadcasts reliably through an antenna, or who want to watch those programs on a mobile device. For $12 a month, it planned to offer New Yorkers the ability to watch or record local stations’ telecasts on their Internet-connected computers or smartphones. That’s a service many broadcasters hope to deliver themselves.


The broadcasters’ lawsuit, which came as no real surprise, alleges that such retransmissions violate their copyrights. It’s essentially the same argument that the industry has used to shut down other services that moved free over-the-air TV onto the Internet without licenses from the copyright owners.

Aereo’s approach has a unique wrinkle, though: Instead of selling its customers channels of programming, it rents each of them one of the many tiny antennas it has set up to tune in the local stations. It also rents them the equipment needed to record, store and transmit the programs to their homes.

This approach is designed to take advantage of a U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that upheld an unconventional video recording service offered by Cablevision. Instead of renting out digital video recorders, Cablevision equipped its customers to share recording and storage equipment in its central office. The court ruled that as long as individual customers were making separate recordings for their own viewing, it didn’t matter that the recording equipment wasn’t in their homes.

That concept stretches only so far, however. Another company that relied on the Cablevision decision, Zediva, tried to offer a Netflix-like online video-on-demand service without obtaining licenses from the movie studios. Zediva enabled subscribers to play discs from a bank of Internet-connected DVD players, which streamed the movies to them online. But a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled last year that the arrangement infringed on the studios’ copyrights and ordered the company to shut it down.

The broadcasters’ lawsuit against Aereo similarly dismisses the company’s attempt to work around copyrights by using sophisticated technology:

It simply does not matter whether Aereo uses one big antenna to receive plaintiffs’ broadcasts and retransmit them to subscribers, or ‘tons’ of ‘tiny’ antennas, as Aereo claims it does. No amount of technological gimmickry by Aereo -- or claims that it is simply providing a set of sophisticated ‘rabbit ears’ -- changes the fundamental principle of copyright law that those who wish to retransmit plaintiffs’ broadcasts may do so only with plaintiffs’ authority. Simply put, Aereo is an unauthorized Internet delivery service that is receiving, converting and retransmitting broadcast signals to its subscribers for a fee.

Naturally, Aereo would characterize its service as a technology akin to a VCR or a TiVo that lets people shift the format and the timing of over-the-air programming. If the technology were sold as a product and installed in customers’ homes, there seems little question that it would be legal. It’s not, however, which means the two sides will be fighting in court over the boundaries of the Cablevision ruling.


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