Aereo: Yes, we’re a Rube Goldberg device. And we’re proud of it.


Aereo's service uses thousands of tiny antennas to help it stay within the bounds of copyright law. (Courtesy Aereo)

Ahead of oral arguments scheduled for next month, streaming media service Aereo has filed an opening brief to the Supreme Court in response to TV broadcasters who've accused the company of copyright infringement.

Aereo argues that its product — which grabs live TV signals out of the air and streams them on the Internet to Aereo subscribers — is just a Web-enabled version of more traditional recording technology, like VCRs and DVR.

"Any consumer with an antenna is entitled to receive, watch and make a personal recording of that content," the firm wrote in its brief, filed late Wednesday.

Broadcasters are fearful that if Aereo's model takes off, it could rob them of revenues they might otherwise get from cable companies, who pay TV stations for the right to carry broadcast programming. Aereo doesn't pay those fees.

"We're hopeful the Supreme Court will reject the Rube Goldberg business model of Aereo," said Dennis Wharton, the top spokesperson for the National Association of Broadcasters, "which we believe is designed solely to evade copyright law."

Aereo's brief, however, embraces the Rube Goldberg label: Exploiting loopholes is the whole point, the company says.

"If [broadcasters] believe a technology that operates within existing laws to allow individual consumers to watch television shows [broadcasters] have offered for free is causing them economic harm, they are entitled to ask Congress to change those laws," the brief states. "But this Court should not rewrite the Copyright Act in an effort to protect petitioners from logical and lawful advances in technology."

Broadcasters say Aereo should be required to pay them for carrying their programming over the Internet — much like what cable companies do in exchange for delivering broadcast programming to people's TV sets. But Aereo founder and chief executive Chet Kanojia said the cable industry actually provides Aereo with a strong defense.

In 2008, a federal court ruled in Cartoon Network vs. CSC Holdings, known as the "Cablevision case, that using cloud-based DVRs, which store a copy of a broadcast on a server to be played back to viewers later, didn't amount to copyright infringement. Kanojia believes Aereo's technology does effectively the same thing.

"'Cablevision' has served as a crucial underpinning to the cloud computing and cloud storage industry," Kanojia said in a statement Wednesday. "A decision against Aereo would upend and cripple the entire cloud industry."

Earlier court decisions, such as a famous case in the 1980s known as the Betamax decision, effectively made it legal to record TV shows for later personal viewing.

Aereo and the broadcasters are scheduled to face off at the court on April 22.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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