The Supreme Court stressed Tuesday the importance of protecting cloud-computing services from being unintentionally affected by their potential decision during arguments in a civil case filed by a coterie of major broadcasters against the scrappy New York City-based TV-over-the-Internet startup Aereo.
The nine justices asked questions that seemed more concerned about the fate of companies such as Box and Dropbox than that of the company in question, Aereo, according to Re/code.
Lawyers representing the broadcast consortium, which included ABC/Disney, CBS, NBC, and Fox, presented the case that Aereo, which uses tiny antennae to pick up broadcast signals before streaming them to subscribers' Internet-connected devices, is no different from cable and satellite companies that are required to pay hefty fees to rebroadcast their shows. (Aereo uses online cloud storage to stream and save programs.)
The question at hand, according to the brief by the broadcasters to the court, is: "Whether a company 'publicly performs' a copyrighted television program when it retransmits a broadcast of that program to thousands of paid subscribers over the Internet."
In the brief filed by Aereo, the question of public performance is presented, but what Aereo does is explained differently, as "supplying remote equipment that allows a consumer to tune an individual, remotely located antenna to a publicly accessible, over-the-air broadcast television signal, use a remote digital video recorder to make a personal recording from that signal, and then watch that recording." Aereo presented itself as, basically, an antenna-rental service.
"Some justices wondered why Aereo shouldn’t be considered the equivalent of a cable company, which would give them the right to transmit TV programming--but would also require them to pay for it," Peter Kafka and Amy Schatz write on Re/code. "And others argued that Aereo seemed primarily designed to evade copyright law."
Earlier this week, Gordon Smith, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters, told The Washington Post: "Quite simply, Aereo takes copyrighted material, profits from it, and does so without compensating copyright holders."
It's not the first time the Supreme Court has decided the fate of a method for TV viewing. In 1984, the big media broadcasters appealed to the nine court justices to stop use of Sony's TV-recording device, the Betamax. The court ruled 5-4 that the sale of Betamax machines--which let individuals record shows for viewing or re-viewing later--did not constitute copyright infringement.
The significance of the precedent of the Betamax decision is up for debate. As Reuters reports, the group of broadcasters don't mention the 1984 case at all in their main brief while Aereo's brief cites it 12 times.
Aereo, backed by Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp who helped found the Fox broadcast network, does not pay the broadcasters for content the way cable companies do.
Reporters at the court Tuesday tweeted hints at how the justices' lines of questioning might indicate their opinions on Aereo's legality.
Breyer and Sotomayor seemed to lean toward Aereo. Ginsburg against. Roberts just gave them a hard time over the necessity of the antenna.--Adrianne Jeffries (@adrjeffries) April 22, 2014
Justice Sotomayor came across as the most avid TV consumer, citing Roku and other services #Aereo--Lawrence Hurley (@lawrencehurley) April 22, 2014
Scalia didn't seem to know he can't get HBO over the air. But Sotomayor apparently has a Roku box.--Brendan Sasso (@BrendanSasso) April 22, 2014
Aereo CEO @ckanojia just spoke outside; took no Q's; he looked relieved. "It's over," he said when we tried to quiz him after.--Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) April 22, 2014
Oral arguments in the case began at 11 a.m. in Washington, D.C. Stay tuned for updates.