Next steps for Aereo in The People vs American Cable Monopolies?

Over the weekend, a letter from Aereo founder and CEO Chet Kanojia appeared on the Aereo website and to any of Aereo’s 500,000 or so customers who logged into the Aereo ap.  While ABC might have thought that it had cut off the hydra’s head after the Supreme Court ruled in its favor last week, Aereo is clearly still pursuing the case in the court of public opinion:

A little over three years ago, our team embarked on a journey to improve the consumer television experience, using technology to create a smart, cloud-based television antenna consumers could use to access live over the air broadcast television.

On Wednesday, June 25, the United States Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision in favor of Aereo, dealing a massive setback to consumers.

As a result of that decision, our case has been returned to the lower Court. We have decided to pause our operations temporarily as we consult with the court and map out our next steps. 

The cornerstone of the Supreme Court 6-3 ruling was the holding, as reported by Scotusblog, that “Aereo publicly performs copyrighted works, in violation of the Copyright Act’s Transmit Clause, when it sells its subscribers a technologically complex service that allows them to watch television programs over the Internet at about the same time as the programs are broadcast over the air.”

If you know anything about the Copyright Act of 1976, you probably know that copyright owners are given a bundle of rights with respect to original works of authorship, among them the exclusive right to perform the copyrighted work publicly. At the heart of this case is whether Aereo, as it claimed, merely rented a small antenna and a digital DVR to each of its customers so that they could grab “free” TV signals off the air and watch them later, or whether Aereo was acting more like a cable company and actually retransmitting copyrighted broadcasts in violation of the Act.

The majority in the Supreme Court decided that it was the latter, relying on Congress’s express emendation of the Copyright Act in 1976 to encompass cable TV companies. The basis for their reasoning was the so-called “transmit” clause, which maintains that the exclusive right to “perform” a work covered by the Copyright Act includes the exclusive right to “transmit or otherwise communicate a performance . . . of the work . . . to the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance . . . receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.”

Dissenting, Justice Scalia filed an opinion joined by Justices Thomas and Alito expressing the belief that Aereo does not “perform” because Aereo’s subscribers determine their own programming selections just as a copy shop serves consumers by providing machines capable of copying anything that the consumer brings in to copy, whether it is subject to copyright or not, and it would be wrong to blame the technology for the fact that it is capable of facilitating law-breaking uses (is anyone thinking of handguns here?).

Scalia goes on to criticize the Court’s holding as stitching together a few fragments of legislative history and lacking solid foundation:

“What we have before us must be considered a ‘loophole’ in the law. It is not the role of this Court to identify and plug loopholes. It is the role of good lawyers to identify and exploit them, and the role of Congress to eliminate them if it wishes. Congress can do that, I may add, in a much more targeted, better informed, and less disruptive fashion than the crude ‘looks-like-cable-TV’ solution the Court invents today.”

While the Supreme Court ruling may appear to have ended the two-year legal battle between ABC and the feisty tech start-up, Aereo, although it originally said that there was no “plan B,” now claims that while it may be down, it is not out. As Forbes contributor Mark Rogowsky notes, Aereo “didn’t have time to seek changes to federal law. Instead, it took the path of an Uber or AirBnB: operate in a legal grey area and hope the law moves with you or affirms your actions. Unlike those other companies, however, Aereo faced big national entities who could take the matter before the ultimate Court in the land.”

While Fox and the big broadcasters may be delighted with the ruling for the time being (Fox is currently suing Dish Network in a similar case involving its Dish Anywhere app, a case that is up before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals next month), the blogosphere is already alight with Aereo alternatives, and it may well be that, having plucked a single dandelion head, ABC’s efforts to put down one upstart in the popular rebellion against astronomical cable fees will merely spread the seeds of innovation beyond even the reach of the large cable monopolies’ power to control.