Is Streaming Television Stealing Television?

The size of an Aereo antenna. Credit: Aereo

A legal dispute centering on whether Aereo can live-stream broadcast signals to subscribers’ computers and mobile devices is spurring debate among experts over which side will prevail.

Some industry observers are predicting a close decision in federal courts, while others envision more rulings in favor of Aereo, and more notably, in favor of live television everywhere.

“These are public airwaves we’re talking about,” said Merrill Brown, director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. “We’ve seen this happen before where a new technology comes along and challenges the status quo. Almost always, the new technology wins.”

Aereo allows subscribers in New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut to watch television on their computers and mobile devices by streaming broadcast signals that are collected by hundreds of thimble-size antennas. Subscribers can also record shows for later viewing.

Network executives have banded together to take down Aereo. Fox, CBS, and Univision threatened to become cable-only stations if Aereo prevails.

Lawyers for the networks have argued that Aereo is essentially committing copyright infringement by retransmitting broadcasts. But their pleas have not been compelling enough to persuade the federal courts to shut down Aereo. An appellate panel upheld that decision on April 1.

Meanwhile, the startup’s own lawsuit against 17 media companies is just getting started. Virginia Lam, vice president of communications and government relations at Aereo, said the case won’t be heard until at least early next year.

“We’re grateful for the court’s thoughtful analysis and decision so far, and we will continue to go through this process,” Lam said.

Dana McClintock, executive vice president of communications for CBS, threatened even more legal action hours after Aereo announced that it would launch operations in Boston on May 15.

“We will sue,” McClintock tweeted. “Stealing our signal will be found to be illegal in Boston, just as it will be everywhere else.”

Steve Miller, a professor at Rutgers University who studies television, said the case could go either way.

“The Internet is still the wild wild West, and what’s free and what isn’t hasn’t quite been figured out yet,” Miller said. “Aereo will argue the broadcast is streaming anyway, but there is a value to copyright.”

Network executives thought they were doomed when TiVo was invented. The service allows viewers to record TV shows on a hard drive and play them back at their convenience. Several networks panicked and filed lawsuits. But TiVo didn’t disappear as they had hoped. Instead, the court allowed these major cable companies to co-opt TiVo’s technology and build DVRs into their set-top boxes.

Similarly, digital music-streamer Pandora, which debuted in 2000, has been engaged in multiple lawsuits against the music industry, including one against the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers over royalty fees.

New technology in both cases gives consumers more options. Aereo lets people watch television without having to pay a cable bill.

“A cable bill can end up being over $200 a month — it’s unfathomable,” Miller said.  “These cable companies are creating a divide between who has money and who doesn’t.”

Miller envisions a service like Aereo built into televisions.

“I think 15 to 20 years from now, we won’t be buying traditional televisions,” he said. “We will be buying smart televisions at a reasonable price, where we can do all the computing through one device.”

Brown said it’s time for networks to innovate; they should follow Aereo’s lead.

“If I were a broadcaster, I would find a new way to monetize this,” he said. “We can’t turn back the clocks, and there’s no way to beat new technology.”

Megan Anderle is a journalist based in New Jersey who writes about technology and food. Her work has appeared on NorthJersey.com and Baristanet.com.

Megan Anderle
Megan Anderle is a journalist based in northern New Jersey who writes about technology, business, and sustainability. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Forbes, and The Record.
Megan Anderle
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