Aereo TV Will Stream For Months As Court Case Simmers

Aereo, the controversial technology that turns iPhones and iPads into portable TV sets and DVRs, will not disappear anytime soon despite efforts by studios to snuff it in court.

Court filings show that the first hearing dates are set for May 30 and May 31 in New York. At this time, studios like Fox (NSDQ: NWS) and NBC (NSDQ: CMCSA) will try to persuade U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan to shut down Aereo with a temporary injunction while the case heads to a full trial.

Aereo is already live in New York City and its main investor, media mogul Barry Diller, says he plans to roll it out in hundreds of more locations soon.

The service works by charging subscribers $12 a month for a remote personal antenna that streams broadcast TV to Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) devices. In a new court filing, Aereo produced a picture of the antenna to show that it is the size of a dime:

In practice, the dime-size antenna means that iPhone owners can watch about a dozen live TV shows anywhere they go. Studios have taken a dim view of the technology and early this month joined together in lawsuits to stop Aereo.

The studio complaints, which also represent Spanish stations and public broadcaster PBS, were filed in two bundles on successive days. But they are essentially the same lawsuit and will be consolidated for the May hearing.

The broadcasters say that Aereo is infringing their copyright by retransmitting their signal. Aereo has rebutted the charge by saying they are not broadcasting to everybody (which would be infringement) but simply providing a service that allows people to set up their own antennas to watch and record TV.

This “one person, one antenna” theory held up in a recent appeals court decision in which the Cartoon Network sued a remote DVR service (legal eagles, see this Alison Frankel post for details). The studios blasted the claim as a technicality: “No amount of technological gimmickry by Aereo or claims of sophisticated ‘rabbit ears’ change the fundamental principle of copyright.”

Who is right? The answer will take time as Judge Nathan is unlikely to rule from the bench at the May hearings, and will probably hand down a written ruling weeks or months later. To obtain a temporary injunction, the broadcasters will have to show they are likely to incur “irreparable harm” if Aereo is not shut down immediately.

Meanwhile, Aereo is asking the court for a declaration that its technology is legal. If the matter is not resolved at this this stage, the broadcasters could press on to trial but that would take years.

In the meantime, Aereo users can safely enjoy Dr. Phil on the go for another few months at least.