Supreme Court Looks Befuddled on Aereo Case

Stephen Breyer referenced phonograph records

By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff

Posted Apr 23, 2014 8:59 AM CDT

(Newser) – The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in ABC v. Aereo, a much-watched case that could have big implications for both cloud computing and broadcast television—implications the justices didn't seem comfortable with. Aereo allows users to record broadcast TV online and watch it at their leisure. The major broadcast networks are suing it for copyright violation, and stand to lose billions in fees cable companies pay to carry their programming. Aereo says it's simply renting users the equipment to do online what they can legally do at home. Here's how the arguments went:

  • "If you're comfortable with the Supreme Court resolving disputes over technology, the transcript of Tuesday's oral arguments … should change your mind," writes Jon Healey at the LA Times. Stephen Breyer at one point made an analogy to "what used to be called a phonograph record store." He also worried that Aereo's antennas could "pick up every television signal in the world," which isn't true, Healey pointed out, "because the world isn't, you know, flat."
  • The justices seemed skeptical of Aereo's business model. "It's not logical to me that you can make these millions of copies and essentially sell them to the public," Sonia Sotomayor said. John Roberts said the company was only using thousands of small antennas, instead of a few big ones "to get around copyright laws," the Wall Street Journal reports.
  • But the justices also seemed genuinely worried that their decision could stifle innovation. Sotomayor asked what effect this would have on "the Dropbox and the iCloud." When the broadcasters' lawyers told them to "just be confident" that Aereo's service was different, Samuel Alito said, "I don't find that very satisfying. … I need to understand what effect it will have on these other technologies."
  • Aereo's best hope is that the justices adhere to a lower court's Cartoon Network vs. Cablevision ruling, which held that customers could make DVR recordings on Cablevision's hard drives, writes Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog. At one point, Anthony Kennedy suggested lawyers pretend that decision had come from the high court.
  • Ultimately, the justices didn't seem to like their options. "This is really hard for me," Sotomayor confessed. "I don't see how to get out of it," Breyer agreed.

Videojournalists set up outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, April 22, 2104.   (AP Photo/J. David Ake)
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