Aereo, the controversial service that beams over-the-air TV to mobile devices, is going on legal offense against the broadcasters that are trying to shut it down. On Monday, Aereo asked the U.S. District Court in Manhattan for an order stating that it does not infringe on the broadcasters’ copyright.
The move comes as Aereo, which recently won a major appeals court ruling on nearly the same issue in New York, prepares to offer its service in Boston and 22 other markets as soon as this month. CBS and other broadcasters have vowed to sue to stop Aereo in those new markets, a threat that appears to have led it to file the new court action. (The new filing, reported by AllThingsD, refers to recent public statements and Twitter feeds by CBS executives, including one that says “we’ll sue”).
So what exactly is the meaning of Aereo’s new lawsuit? Here’s what one copyright expert familiar with the issue had to say:
Aereo’s decision to file a separate declaratory judgment action at this stage is unorthodox. They’ve prevailed on a preliminary injunction motion at the district and circuit court level — which means that both the Southern District and the 2d Circuit have ruled they are likely to succeed on the merits — so it’s unusual to seek a declaratory judgment on the same issues.
Recall that the appeals court decision from last month already protects Aereo for the immediate future in the U.S. Second District, a territory that covers the states of New York, Vermont and Connecticut. This means that the new declaratory action Aereo is seeking will not really change any facts on the ground but could give the company another favorable verdict — but not one that will determine its fate in Boston (which is in the First Circuit) or any of the other legal jurisdictions where Aereo plans to open shop.
The most likely explanation, then, is that the move is part of the increasingly pitched PR battle between Aereo and the broadcasters who, in another recent appeal, accused the upstart of creating “havoc” and “massive disruption” in the television industry. The broadcasters have also threatened to pull their signals altogether and distribute their channels, including Fox and ABC, only on pay TV.
Aereo, for its part, argues that its technology, which assigns every subscriber a personal antenna, is akin to private viewing through a DVR system. The company’s CEO, Chet Kanojia, has accused the broadcasters of extracting exorbitant fees by forcing viewers to accept cable bundles stuffed with channels they don’t want to watch.
Aereo’s new lawsuit, therefore, gives it a way to gain the upper hand on the media message (for a short time at least) – and possibly pick up some additional legal language from a judge who has taken the company’s side in the past.
In the bigger picture, the Aereo fight is part of a great game over the future of the TV industry. Aereo, which is backed by a major investment from media mogul Barry Diller, has also been the subject of acquisition rumors by satellite provider Dish. Broadcasters fear that an alliance between the two companies could provide an end-run around the existing system that requires cable and satellite providers to pay for use of the over-the-air signals.
The final outcome could well end up at the Supreme Court given a current split between the courts in New York and a district court in California, which shut down a similar service to Aereo last year. In the meantime, it’s possible that a patchwork of decisions could result in Aereo being legal in half the country and forbidden in the other half.
In another recent development, the four major sports leagues have joined the anti-Aereo chorus by filing court papers to support the broadcasters’ request that a full panel of the Second Circuit reconsider its decision. The NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball argue that the appeals court was wrong to consider Aereo a “private” transmission like singing in the shower:
An individual who sings a copyrighted lyric in the shower engages in a private performance […] A commercial service (like Aereo) that retransmits the broadcast of a copyrighted television program to thousands of paying subscribers at the same time is not in any way comparable.
Here’s a copy of Aereo’s new lawsuit: