Supreme Court’s Aereo Decision ‘Sends a Chilling Message to the Technology Industry’

By Josh Long Comments

In a victory today for American broadcasters, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Aereo has committed copyright infringement by delivering a service that allows consumers to watch streaming TV programs over the Internet.

Interpreting a provision of the Copyright Act of 1976, the court held that Aereo “performs" the copyrighted works of the broadcasters “publicly."

The landmark 6-3 decision overturned a ruling from a federal appeals court, which had held that Aereo delivers private transmissions when it streams to a subscriber.

“Today’s decision sends an unmistakable message that businesses built on the theft of copyrighted material will not be tolerated," said Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).

In finding that Aereo “performs" or transmits a performance when a customer watches a show over Aereo’s systems, the court examined 1976 amendments to federal copyright law.

The amendments were adopted by Congress to reach the predecessor to modern cable systems and essentially reject prior decisions from the court, which found community antenna television systems (CATV) did not commit copyright infringement, Justice Stephen Breyer explained, writing for the majority. 

The court dismissed Aereo’s argument that its service is not delivered to the public simply because it streams a copy of a program to only one subscriber. The majority found no meaningful distinction between Aereo’s system and cable systems that perform publicly.

“Viewed in terms of Congress’ regulatory objectives, why should any of these technological differences matter?" Breyer wrote. “They concern the behind-the-scenes way in which Aereo delivers television programming to its viewers’ screens. They do not render Aereo’s commercial objectives any different from that of cable companies."

Chet Kanojia, founder and CEO of Aereo, characterized the court’s decision as “a massive setback for the American consumer."

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