Intellectual Property » DOJ Backs Broadcasters In Supreme Court Streaming TV Copyright Case

DOJ Backs Broadcasters In Supreme Court Streaming TV Copyright Case

March 4, 2014

The Justice Department is backing cable television providers in a Supreme Court case pitting the traditional TV business model versus that of internet streaming startup Aereo. In a March 3 brief, DOJ wrote that Aereo is “clearly infringing” on broadcasters’ copyright by streaming live television feeds to users with internet-connected devices. The question before the Court in American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc. 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.

Aereo’s technology takes free over-the-air broadcasts from networks and makes them  available to its subscribers on internet-connected devices, including phones, without compensating broadcasters. Aereo enables users to record programming to watch later, and it gives them the chance to fast forward through advertisements. Networks, including Fox, ABC, and NBC have sued, claiming Aereo is stealing and broadcasting their content without permission. A Utah judge recently forced Aereo to stop operations in Utah and Colorado, finding the company is infringing copyright. However, Aereo has already won previous cases in New York and Boston.

A win for Aereo could spell the end for the current business model, in which TV operators pay distribution fees to broadcasters to carry their signals. Executives at Fox and CBS have gone so far as to say if Aereo’s business was deemed legal, they would take their networks off air, turning them into exclusive cable channels. The NFL and MLB have both threatened to leave major networks if Aereo opens the channel for internet streaming, and move to paid channels like ESPN.

The Justice Department in its brief was careful to note the distinction it finds between Aereo’s current model, which it believes infringes on copyright, and future innovations for internet streaming. The Court’s ruling “should not call into question the legitimacy of businesses that use the Internet to provide new ways for consumers to store, hear and view their own lawfully acquired copies of copyrighted work,” DOJ wrote. Specifically, it said that reversal of the judgment “need  not threaten the legality of cloud computing.”

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