Aereo, the Supreme Court, and the Future of TV

Analog regulations are straining to adapt to an increasingly digital world

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The Supreme Court will soon reach its decision on the much-publicized American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, a case many believe will have a profound effect on the way we watch television.

Aereo rents small antennas and cloud storage to subscribers, allowing them to record and playback over-the-air broadcasts through digitally enabled devices. Broadcasters feel Aereo is retransmitting copyrighted work to paying customers and, based on current copyright law, should be subject to the same retransmission fees cable and satellite companies currently pay. Aereo argues that it is simply a technology company that empowers individuals and therefore isn't engaged in the "public performance" of copyrighted works subject to these fees.

April's oral arguments gave little indication of which way the Supreme Court will rule. The decision is expected any day now.

But no matter the outcome, this case underlines just how antiquated and unresponsive our regulatory and copyright framework has become in an increasingly digital age.

"[This is] just an indication of how complex copyright law has become," says University of Maryland Professor of Law James Grimmelmann. "[Novelist] Douglas Coupland wonderfully called the computer the 'every animal' machine because it is capable of acting like anything. That is how the Internet works. It can act like a cable system. It can act like a storage device. It's TV. It's radio. It's telephone. It's telegraph.  It's everything. That means that a regulatory system that treats these different media differently is going to throw up its hands in confusion when it hits the Internet."

"Whatever happens to Aereo the industry from now on is going to be forced to move forward and innovate," says Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia. "[We] didn't cause this change. The change has been brewing since the Internet started moving bits around."

Produced by Meredith Bragg. Camera by Bragg and Jim Epstein.

About 6 minutes.