Aereo is getting the Supreme Court fight it wanted


A view of the U.S. Supreme Court seen from the top of the U.S. Capitol dome in this Dec. 19, 2013 file photo in Washington, D.C. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

Aereo is a company that sells access to live television programming over the Internet — without paying broadcasters for the privilege. Unsurprisingly, broadcasters don't like that. In fact, they dislike it so much that they've engaged in a lengthy legal battle to shut Aereo down. And Friday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear their case.

Aereo uses small HDTV antennas to receive over the air broadcasts -- just the television any normal consumer with a digital antenna could receive over the air for free, not cable channels -- and mirrors their content on their own servers. Users pay a small monthly fee for control of one of those antennas, as well as features including a cloud hosted DVR service. Broadcasters have alleged this counts as "retransmission" -- which would require Aereo to pay fees for privilege -- or else a public performance that infringes copyright.

But Aereo argues that since each subscriber is assigned their own antenna to control, it doesn't violate the federal copyright laws. And a majority opinion from New York's Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the streaming service.

Broadcasters appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court -- and Aereo filed a brief asking the highest court in the land to hear the case. That's pretty unusual -- normally when a company wins a legal battle they fight to stop appeals. But Aereo said it wants to resolve the legal arguments over its business model once and for all.

That would stop Aereo from having to fight legal battles in every jurisdiction the broadcast industry can find to file them. But it would also allow their specific case to define the issue, rather than appeals from FilmOn -- a competitor who has had less luck in the courts so far and several branding disputes with Aereo itself including creating sites, such as "barrydriller.com" (a reference to media mogul Barry Diller who backs Aereo) and aereokiller.com. As James Grimellman, a law professor at the University of Maryland tweeted: "Aereo wants to have its (excellent) legal team argue the case, rather than FilmOn's lawyers."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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