Summary:

Should Americans be able to buy small bundles of TV to watch on their mobile device? The legal fight over that question moved to Boston this week.

Castle on Aereo TV
photo: Aereo

Aereo, the start-up that uses tiny antennas to deliver TV to smartphones for $8 a month, has been operating in Boston for months without the high profile copyright battles it confronts in New York.

That changed on Tuesday when a Boston broadcaster, Hearst-owned WCVB, sued to stop Aereo from retransmitting its over-the-air signals, and claimed the service is harming its business:

Aereo further free-rides on WCVB’s substantial investment in its broadcasting infrastructure. Aereo is willfully, wantonly, and unfairly exploiting WCVB’s programming and broadcasts for its own commercial benefit.

The new lawsuit further complicates a national chess game that pits media mogul and Aereo investor, Barry Diller, against powerful broadcasters like CBS and ABC in a bid to define how Americans can watch TV. Diller and Aereo Chet Kanojia argue that the existing TV industry is a cabal that forces viewers to buy expensive bundles of channels they don’t want to watch; Aereo wants to offer a “rational” bundle instead.

Aereo won a critical legal victory last year when New York’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the upstart was not violating copyright because each subscriber rents their own personal antenna — which means, in the eyes of the court, that the service is akin to a private DVR rather than a mass transmission. (Under copyright law, private copying and recording is permitting while broadcasting to the public is not).

Aereo, now totally legal in three northeast states, soon announced plans to unveil the service in 22 more cities but, so far, it has only appeared in three: New York, Boston and Atlanta.

The slow-roll out is likely tied to the larger legal fight in which the broadcasters won an important victory of their own last year, shutting down a would-be Aereo competitor — and getting an injunction blanketing most of the western United States. The conflicting legal opinions in New York and California tees up the case up for a possible hearing by the Supreme Court. Aereo declined to comment on the Boston suit, which was first reported by Bloomberg.

If you want to see the legal status of Aereo where you live, see our map here. The new legal filing is below:

WCVB v Aereo

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