Aereo’s on the ropes, and now broadcasters are trying for a knockout punch

August 18

If Aereo's legal battle were a round of Mortal Kombat, someone would be shouting "finish him!" right now.

Yes, the streaming TV company is still alive — though it's on the ropes, having been slapped with an unfavorable Supreme Court decision earlier this year and suspended its service, which let customers take TV signals from the air, record them in the cloud and play them back over the Internet. Now Aereo's just waiting for a court to determine if it'll be allowed to make a backup legal argument for its survival — but the broadcasters are determined to shut that effort down before it even gets started.

Court documents filed Friday had TV programmers' lawyers arguing that Judge Alison Nathan should forget about giving Aereo another chance and simply lay down an injunction against the company that would ban it from operating.

Aereo wants to claim that it's a cable company in the eyes of the Copyright Office. That would qualify it for a kind of content license that would still require Aereo to pay royalties for TV shows, but not the higher fees that broadcasters want to charge directly. This license, granted under what lawyers refer to as "Section 111," is Aereo's best hope right now.

Broadcasters are arguing that Section 111 is irrelevant. The Supreme Court's already said everything you need to know, they say.

"The … opinion does not hold that Aereo is a cable system entitled to a Section 111 license, even though the Court was clearly aware of Section 111, as Aereo points out," the broadcasters wrote.

That's not all. Broadcasters are trying to go for the kill, calling for a nationwide ban on Aereo. They're also demanding that any injunction address not just Aereo's retransmission of content in near real-time, but also even content that's played back online hours or days after the original broadcast. (Time-delayed playback has, for a long time, been considered fine under the law if the recording is being made for personal use. That's how we got VCRs and DVRs.)

Judging by its legal tactics so far, Aereo may still have some surprises in store. Before the Supreme Court ruled against it, Aereo said it didn't have a Plan B — though we've clearly seen now that that isn't the case. Aereo could be working on a Plan C, or even a Plan D. And a recent proposal in the Senate could help Aereo in some unexpected ways, if the company can hang on long enough for all the pieces to fall into place.

But if broadcasters can strike a decisive blow here and now, Aereo's prospects for avoiding an injunction would grow incredibly dim. And then, it's just a matter of how narrowly tailored it would be.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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