Aereo is a startup that built an elaborate system for distributing live, high-definition broadcast television content to subscribers for a monthly fee over the Internet—without obtaining permission from, or paying royalties to, the copyright owners in the audiovisual works aired by broadcasters. In essence, Aereo sought to exploit a loophole in the copyright law, installing small dime-sized antennas that each provide programming to only a single subscriber. In 2012, a group of companies that own copyrights in broadcast television programs sued Aereo in federal court, alleging that the company infringed their copyrights by publicly performing their works without permission.
How would the average American be affected by each possible outcome of this case?
Both the federal trial court and the appeals court for the Second Circuit ruled in Aereo’s favor, concluding that the company did not “perform” broadcast television “to the public” under the U.S. Copyright Act. On June 25, 2014, however, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit, holding that Aereo indeed publicly performs the television programs it offers and thus infringes on the copyrights of broadcast program owners. Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for the Court, which five other Justices joined. Justice Scalia, joined by his conservative-leaning colleagues Justice Thomas and Justice Alito, dissented on textualist grounds.
How do you expect the Supreme Court to rule here, and why?
For the vast majority of Americans who do not subscribe to Aereo, but instead access broadcast television through an antenna or a pay-television cable or satellite provider, the Supreme Court’s decision has few immediate implications. Aereo subscribers, however, will need to find another way to access broadcst television, as the company will likely cease operating in its current form. In the long run, the Aereo ruling is a victory for television lovers and creators alike, as it gives the individuals and businesses that work hard to produce creative works the security they need to keep investing in the original content that most Americans spend many hours enjoying every week.