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By Gergana Miteva

Aereo is one of several startups that pioneered the concept of streaming TV over the Internet and making it viewable on every available gadget, including smart phones, tablets, and even good old computers. However, Aereo and other similar services never bothered to request licenses or offered to pay anything to the content owners of the broadcasted programming, and they were all promptly sued. Unlike other companies, though, an injunction has not yet been placed on Aereo, and the company has been seamlessly offering online television since March of this year. The plaintiffs in the case, which include Fox, CBS, NBC, and PBC, are claiming that Aereo infringed upon their copyrights by publicly performing and reproducing copyrighted works. They are also claiming unfair competition under state law. (Complaint available at https://www.eff.org/document/wnet-v-aereo-complaint)

Aereo has brought a number of novel concepts to the technological and legal discussion in this highly litigated area. First, according to its pleadings, unlike other similar services, Aereo does not provide access to cable-subscription-only networks such as CNN, USA, and TNT, which has allowed it to argue that it is not offering its subscribers any content they were not already entitled to. Second, it has devised a very cheap to manufacture tiny antenna, which every subscriber would install on his or her rooftop. Unlike other over-the-air signal intercepting antennae, these are not shared among subscribers; each one is dedicated to a single consumer. Third, the programming is not streamed directly to a subscriber's device, rather, the signals are intercepted by the miniscule antenna and retransmitted to and stored on Aereo's remote infrastructure. Then the signal is encoded for streaming over a digital device and transmitted back to the subscriber. (Aereo's Pre-hearing Memorandum of Law available at: http://archive.recapthelaw.org/nysd/392874/)

According to the defendant, no "streaming" takes place, even when the subscriber requests the "watch now" option of its service. Indeed, Aereo claims that the "record" and "watch now" functions trigger exactly the same mechanism of recording the signal on Aereo's infrastructure. The only difference between the two functions is that the "watch now" option plays back the content while it is still being recorded, causing a short delay for the subscriber. Another legally significant detail of Aereo's setup is that only one subscriber would have access to and ability to play the stored content. Even if another subscriber requests the same content at that same time, a unique copy of the program would be stored for that subscriber.

This technological setup may be capable of skillfully bending around many of the obstacles Aereo's brethren have tripped over. Aereo is hoping to defeat the public performance claim by arguing that no public performance takes place when each subscriber is playing his or her unique copy of recorded programming which is exclusive and unique for this subscriber. If this argument sways the court, Aereo would have its cake and eat it too, because from a subscriber's perspective, he or she is watching live, streaming television; while from a legal perspective, subscribers are watching pre-recorded programs, and enjoying the same functionality as provided by DVR or TiVo.

This week, the Southern District of New York dismissed the plaintiffs' state law claim for unfair competition. The court noted that the question of whether private performances of copyrighted works are actionable under New York's unfair competition statute is one of first impression. Concluding that the claim is preempted by the Copyright Act, the court agreed with Aereo that imposing liability on private performances of copyrighted works would extend copyright protection beyond the scope of the Copyright Act. The court reasoned that Congress specifically excluded from copyright protection performances to "a normal circle of a family and its close social acquaintances," to indicate its intent to not impose liability for this type of activity. (Opinion available at: http://www.mediabistro.com/tvspy/aereo-scores-legal-victory-over-broadcasters_b49496)

Stay tuned, because the "season finale" on the copyright infringement claims under the theories of public performance and reproduction of copyrighted works, is coming up next...

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 24, 2012 10:01 PM.

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