MANHATTAN (CN) – Two digital rights groups have come to the defense of a service that uses antennae to broadcast television over the Internet, as major networks sue to take the start-up down.
“This case is in fact about the right of individuals – Aereo’s customers and ultimately all residents of the U.S. – to watch free local broadcast television with the technology of their choosing,” according to the amicus brief filed the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge, nonprofits dedicated to preserving civil liberties in a digital age.
The brief urges a Manhattan federal judge to reject calls for a preliminary injunction against Aereo Inc. in the copyright case filed by Fox Television Stations, Public Broadcasting Service and other media giants.
“Plaintiffs prefer a public performance right that limits viewers to narrow, outdated, and technology-specific means of accessing the public airwaves,” the brief states, adding that litigation damages both individual rights and free-market innovation.
“Cases that test the application of statutory copyright law to new technologies often involve startup companies, like Aereo, whose businesses challenge incumbent industries,” according to the brief.
The nonprofits add that “such competitive challenges are not a violation of any law, and in fact are generally events to be encouraged where, as here, innovation and competition go hand in hand.”
Aereo’s technology would allow viewers to rent a small antenna located at the company’s facility and then view free television signals that the antenna picks up and sends to their homes over the Internet. But the networks say this constitutes an illegal free public performance of their copyrighted material.
Electronic rights defenders hope to distance the service from copyright law, which characterizes a broadcast as a private performance if each user accesses its own antennae and signal.
“The origin of each transmission is a lawful, user-made copy taken from the public airwaves, a source to which the user would have lawful access by set-top antenna, [or] roof antenna,” the brief states (emphasis in original).
Aereo’s innovation “is part of the evolving public perception of what it means to ‘watch TV,'” and part of a general trend of allowing viewers to watch TV through an Internet connection, it adds.
In addition to rejecting claims of a copyright violation, the brief also argues that there is no reason to enjoin the technology before the case is decided.
Even if the court determines that Aereo violated copyright, “any resulting harm can be remedied through the payment of damages,” the brief states.
Legal precedent dictates that “courts may no longer assume that infringement of copyrights automatically triggers the issuance of an injunction,” according to the filing.
While the networks need to protect their copyrights, and Aereo needs to protect its business interests, the public’s First Amendment interest in receiving information outweighs the other factors, the brief states.
Aereo’s technology merely advances an established right, its supporters say.
“The Supreme Court has held that ‘preserving the benefits of free, over-the-air local broadcast television is an important government interest,'” the brief states (emphasis in original). “By providing an antenna to viewers, Aereo does nothing more than make it easier for viewers to access a broadcaster’s free service.”