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SCOTUS has a tech day–ABC vs. Aereo

AereoThe Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) handed down a couple of tech-related decisions today.

First up: ABC vs. Aereo. Aereo is a (self-styled) cord-cutting alternative. Aereo places small receiver antennas in the markets that they are in, and for a fee will transmit those signals to your wireless device. One subscriber, one antenna. And they’re only grabbing over-the-air signals.

Aereo says they’re not a retransmitting service. ABC (and other broadcasters) disagree. The lower courts have, thus far, agreed with Aereo. The SCOTUS, however, did not. The key passage in the decision:

Because Aereo’s activities are substantially similar to those of the CATV companies that Congress amended the [Copyright] Act to reach, Aereo is not simply an equipment provider. Aereo sells a service that allows subscribers to watch television programs, many of which are copyrighted, virtually as they are being broadcast. Aereo uses its own equipment, housed in a centralized warehouse, outside of its users’ homes. By means of its technology, Aereo’s system “receives programs that have been released to the public and carr[ies] them by private channels to additional viewers.”

Therefore, says the SCOTUS, Aereo is akin to a cable broadcaster, and should be paying the broadcast corporations.

The dissenters were Scalia, Alito, and Thomas. Writing for the minority, Scalia had this to say:

… Aereo does not “perform” at all. The Court manages to reach the oppostie conclusion only by disregarding widely accepted rules for service-provider liability and adopting in their place an improvised standard (“looks-like-cable-TV”) that will sow confusion for years to come.

I have to agree: the looks-like-cable-TV idea is a bad precedent. Time will tell how bad.

Now, some folks have wondered if this will affect cloud computing. Effectively, we don’t really know, but Justice Breyer specifically wrote:

“We believe that resolution of questions about cloud computing, remote storage DVRs and other novel matters not now before us should await a case in which they are clearly presented.”

Now if you’ve been paying attention to politics at all, you may note that this is the kind of thing that gets lawmakers in hot water. “Oh, but we didn’t MEAN for this broadly-worded law to affect THAT.” So I’ll believe Breyer for the moment, but won’t be surprised if some other course says, “Well, yes, but…”

I’m also waiting to see how this affects services like Slingbox and Roku. I don’t think they’ll be affected, because you have to have subscriptions to the associated channels in the first place, but goodness only knows what some greedy little CEO is going to be thinking in a few years.

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