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Supreme Court Rules Against Aereo, TV Broadcasters Breathe Sigh of Relief

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood June 25, 2014 at 12:31PM

In a decision that has major implications for the television industry at large, the Supreme Court ruled today against Aereo, the company that uses thousands of tiny antennas to record TV broadcasts and stream contact to subscribers almost-live (after a few seconds' delay) for a small monthly fee.
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U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court

In a ruling that has major implications for the television industry at large, the Supreme Court ruled today against Aereo, the company that uses thousands of tiny antennas to record TV broadcasts and stream contact to subscribers almost-live (after a few seconds' delay) for a small monthly fee.

In its 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court said that Aereo's practice violates copyright laws and is essentially equivalent to stealing their programming, delivering a win to the major television networks and imperiling the business viability of the two-year old start-up.

As we speculated earlier this month, an Aereo win could have upset the entire television paradigm, jeopardizing the $3.3 billion in retransmission fees that broadcasters rake in (Aereo does not pay those fees) and potentially spurring the broadcast networks to wall off their content by transforming into cable companies.  In arguments before the court in April, lawyers for the broadcasters said that their clients would be forced to do just that should the eventual decision favor Aereo.

"Aereo is not simply an equipment provider," the court concluded in its ruling, written by Justice Stephen Breyer and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elana Kagan. "Aereo sells a service that allows subscribers to watch television programs, many of which are copyrighted, virtually as they are being broadcast."

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Antonin Scalia compared Aereo to a service that allows customers to make photocopies:

"One customer might copy his 10-year-old’s drawings — a perfectly lawful thing to do — while another might duplicate a famous artist’s copyrighted photographs — a use clearly prohibited by [the Copyright Act]. Either way, the customer chooses the content and activates the copying function; the photocopier does nothing except in response to the customer’s commands. Because the shop plays no role in selecting the content, it cannot be held directly liable when a customer makes an infringing copy."

In a joint statement, the broadcast networks lauded the court's decisions, calling it a "victory for consumers": "The court has sent a clear message that it will uphold the letter and spirit of the law just as Congress intended."


SAG-AFTRA also weighed in on the decision with a statement, saying that "the Court properly limited the scope of the decision so that cloud services and other technological innovations are neither inhibited nor limited. This decision gives the creative community greater confidence that copyright law cannot be so simply evaded and restores the proper balance to the system."

This article is related to: Web/Tech, Media


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.