Do you make it a point of sitting in your recliner in front of the television every Sunday night to watch “The Good Wife” on CBS? How about “Dancing with the Stars,” “American Idol,” or “The Blacklist”?
The way you watch your favorite television shows may have taken a fundamental change this week.
On Tuesday, representatives from a company that most Americans have never heard of, Aereo, spent the morning in front of the U.S. Supreme Court defending their business model. Aereo is being sued by the major national broadcasters (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, etc.) in an argument over rebroadcast fees.
To understand why this matters to you, you must first understand what Aereo does. The company sets up in major cities dozens of little antennas that capture the free over-the-air signals and sends them to cloud storage. These are the same signals the many people in Van Wert County who do not purchase cable or dish packages use to watch television. Once Aereo has captured these signals and placed them on servers, subscribers to their service, paying between $8 to $12 per month, can then watch the shows on television sets, computer monitors, iPads, or smartphones. Viewers can either stream the shows or save them and watch them at a later time.
The broadcasters are arguing Aereo is stealing their signals and then rebroadcasting them to customers without paying rebroadcasting fees. Aereo counters that argument by saying they are being paid for providing a service to the customers. They state anyone can purchase a DVR, record the shows themselves, and watch them at a later date. (The precedent for individuals performing this task was set in the 1983 U.S. Supreme Court case of Sony/Betamax v. Universal City Studios which stated individuals were not in violation of copyright infringement if they were recording for their own use.)
While all of that may be fascinating, why should anyone in Van Wert care how this case turns out?
If Aereo wins, then the $3.3 billion of retransmission fees the broadcast companies earn every year will be in doubt. Times Warner Cable, for instance, could set up its own array to capture the signals and then replay them on a 30-second delay without costing them a dime. To counter this, CBS Director/CEO Leslie Moonves has said his company would stop broadcasting over-the-air and become strictly a cable broadcast company. Officials at the other broadcasters have reportedly said similar things. That means no more television shows for viewers who do not pay for cable. Also, it would be very hard for local affiliates, like WLIO in Lima, to remain in business without the programming content of the national broadcasters. That issue could result in no more local programming.
If the broadcasters win, the entire matter of copyrights, individual usage, and ownership rights come in to play. Products such as Dropbox or Google Drive, which utilize cloud storage for their customers, will have issues. Netflix streaming movies will be affected. Imagine purchasing a song on iTunes but storing it in your account on the cloud. Who owns that copy? You or Apple? This part of the question was so important to the Court that Justice Stephen Breyer told the attorneys representing the broadcasters, “Your argument makes me nervous.”
As it is with many lawsuits like this today, the real issue lies with a set of laws that have not kept up with technological advancements. The Justices are left trying to pigeonhole a new company, like Aereo, into categories of air broadcaster, cable provider, digital broadcaster, or service provider - all at the same time many companies are performing most if not all of these tasks - leaving laws and regulations 20 years behind the curve. In the end, this may be the biggest issue of all.