Supreme Court Issues ‘Sweeping And Definitive’ Ruling Against Aereo In Huge Copyright Case

Aereo Court
Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia. Getty Images

The Supreme Court ruling on Aereo is out, and the court has ruled against the upstart company and in favour of TV broadcasters.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision that had ruled in favour of Aereo, a service that lets you stream live network TV.

The court found that Aereo service violated copyrights owned by TV broadcasters, marketers, and distributors whose programs the company streamed.

“This ruling appears sweeping and definitive, determining that Aereo is illegal,” the lawyer Tom Goldstein wrote on SCOTUSBlog.

The case will have lasting implications for the way content is delivered online.

Aereo’s technology uses special HD antennas that are about the size of a thumbnail to pull in broadcast TV from the airwaves. The signal is then transferred over the internet to your device.

Copyright law generally allows you to seek permission before broadcasting a public performance. In arguing that its service was legal, Aereo said the TV broadcasts counted as private performances because they were broadcast through individual antennas into people’s homes. The Supreme Court did not buy that argument. From the Supreme Court’s decision:

Viewed in terms of Congress’ regulatory objectives, these behind-the-scenes technological differences do not distinguish Aereo’s system from cable systems, which do perform publicly. Congress would as much have intended to protect a copyright holder from the unlicensed activities of Aereo as from those of cable companies.

The liberal justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts as well as Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Justice Anthony Scalia filed the dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

In his dissent, Scalia writes that Aereo can’t be held liable for copyright infringement because users are the ones selects the programs they want to watch. Unlike other video-on-demand services, Aereo doesn’t provide a prearranged assortment of TV shows. From the dissent:

Unlike video-on-demand services, Aereo does not provide a prearranged assortment of movies and television shows. Rather, it assigns each subscriber an antenna that — like a library card — can be used to obtain whatever broadcasts are freely available. Some of those broadcasts are copyrighted; others are in the public domain. The key point is that subscribers call all the shots: Aereo’s automated system does not relay any program, copyrighted or not, until a subscriber selects the program and tells Aereo to relay it.

The networks argued that Aereo was illegal because it was retransmitting copyrighted content. Cable companies have to pay networks retransmission fees to do that. Aereo argued that it was legal because its service was no different from a company that rents HD antennas and DVR equipment to customers.

The big question the Supreme Court had to answer is whether or not Aereo’s service constitutes a private or public performance. A private performance in which each user has his or her own unique recording of copyrighted content is considered legal. Otherwise, Aereo would probably have to pay some sort of fee to the networks.

Aereo is expected to release a statement on the ruling within a few hours.

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