MANHATTAN (CN) – For now, the Internet broadcasting service Aereo can keep streaming TV from a Brooklyn rooftop, over the protests of major networks, a federal judge ruled.
Several major networks, including ABC, CBS, and NBC, sued Aereo on March 1 this year, claiming that the company infringed on their broadcasts by transmitting them to subscribers.
For months, the parties have wrangled over whether Aereo’s platform and technology made it liable for copyright violations, and the network asked for an injunction to stop the service.
Each time a subscriber logs into its online service, Aereo randomly assigns the user an antenna in its facilities to watch and record broadcast TV for free.
The mechanics of its antenna model gave rise to a knotty legal dispute.
“Aereo contends that each of its antennas functions separately to receive the incoming broadcast signals,” U.S. District Judge Allison J. Nathan summarized. “Plaintiffs assert that Aereo’s antennas function collectively as a single antenna, aided by a shared metallic substructure.”
After hearing arguments from experts on both sides, Nathan found Aereo’s explanation more convincing.
“Based on the evidence at this stage of the proceedings, the Court finds that Aereo’s antennas function independently,” Nathan wrote in her recent order. “That is to say, each antenna separately receives the incoming broadcast signal, rather than functioning collectively with the other antennas or with the assistance of the shared metal substructure.”
The judge added that even though the networks were “not likely to prevail on the merits,” their fears about Aereo’s threat to their business model were probably warranted.
“In sum, the Court concludes that Aereo threatens Plaintiffs with irreparable harm by luring cable subscribers from that distribution medium into Aereo’s service, diminishing Plaintiffs’ ability to benefit from their content in ways that are fundamentally difficult to measure or prove with specificity,” the order states. “Plaintiffs’ showing of imminent irreparable harm is substantial, but not overwhelming.”
On the other hand, she said, the effect of an injunction against Aereo could have killed the company.
“First and foremost, the evidence establishes that an injunction may quickly mean the end of Aereo as a business,” the order states.
Ultimately, she found that there was a “strong public interest in the copyright system’s function of motivating individuals to make available their creative works and increase the store of public knowledge.”
But she rejected with the position of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocated for Aereo by stating that the “public has an interest in the availability of the broadcast and the free receipt of plaintiffs’ content in the marketplace of ideas.”
She pointed out that Aereo is not, technically, free.
“The Court notes, however, that even setting aside the other lawful methods through which consumers may access broadcast television even in Aereo’s absence, Aereo is a business and does not provide ‘free’ access to broadcast television,” the order states. “Moreover, although this argument carries some force to the extent that there is a public interest in access to television broadcast over the free public airwaves and Aereo facilitates such access, it cannot be afforded substantial weight because it proves too much. The same logic would support a finding that the public interest favors imposing no copyright restrictions on any form of redistribution of Plaintiffs’ broadcast television, as unrestrained piracy of that content would also increase public access to content broadcast over the free public airwaves.”
Aereo’s CEO and founder Chet Kanojia called the ruling a win for consumers, and the little guy, in a statement.”Today’s decision shows that when you are on the right side of the law, you can stand up, fight the Goliath and win,” Kanojia said on Wednesday. “This isn’t just a win for Aereo, it’s also a significant win for consumers who are demanding more choice and flexibility in the way they watch television.”