In a Supreme Court filing Monday, the Justice Department backed broadcast networks in their fight against online video streaming startup Aereo.
Justice Department lawyers argued that Aereo’s broadcast television streaming service infringes on broadcasters’ copyrights and asked the court to reverse a lower court’s decision that found in favor of the startup.
The decision to side with the broadcast industry over an Internet startup might be somewhat disappointing to techies who have felt that the Obama administration understands them (at least more so than previous administrations). The Justice Department took pains in its brief to suggest that the Supreme Court might want to take a somewhat narrow view of the case (which involves complicated issues about remote recording of shows and how broadcasts are transmitted to viewers).
“A decision rejecting [Aereo’s] infringing business model and reversing the judgment below need not call into question the legitimacy of innovative technologies that allow consumers to use the Internet to store, hear, and view their own lawfully acquired copies of copyrighted works,” the Justice Department said.
Indeed, “reversal of the judgment below need not threaten the legality of cloud computing,” the department’s lawyers noted. They take the view that cloud-computing services that offer consumers a chance to remotely store and stream copies they have already legally acquired is fine.
Aereo’s service doesn’t pass muster, the Justice Department said, because it is allowing consumers to “gain access to copyrighted content in the first instance — the same service that cable companies have traditionally provided.” Unlike cable companies, however, Aereo isn’t paying licensing fees to broadcasters.
Aereo allows consumers to see local broadcast programs on the Internet by renting them access to tiny remote antennas. Subscribers pay up to $12 a month for the service, which allows them to record shows remotely and store them online for playback on laptops and mobile devices.
Last week, the big four networks warned that an Aereo victory in the case would essentially destroy the broadcast industry’s business model of charging pay-TV companies like Dish Network and Time Warner Cable fees to retransmit broadcast signals.
Aereo has argued that it isn’t violating federal copyright laws and isn’t threatening the future of the broadcast industry. Company executives have argued in public and in court filings that the service appeals to cord cutters and will help broadcasters keep those viewers. An Aereo spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the Justice Department’s filing.
Aereo’s service just launched in Austin, Texas, and is now available in 10 metro areas. The company has plans to expand to more than a dozen more areas soon.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the Aereo case on April 22, with a decision likely in June. Neither U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli (who argues the government’s side before the Supreme Court) nor his principal deputy will take part in the case, the Justice Department said in the filing, noting the two have been recused.
NBCUniversal, which is an investor in the parent company of Re/code, is a party in this case.