Last week’s decision by The Supreme Court was seen in some quarters as a defeat for technologists but it was, instead, a victory for every writer, photographer, director, songwriter, television producer and actor.
At issue was Aereo, Inc., an ingenious little company that discovered it could sell a service by giving subscribers television programs over the Internet for a small fee. The technology behind the service was complex but boiled down to the fact that under U.S. law some networks are required to broadcast their services to all Americans. If you have a television and an antenna you can watch endless hours of programming for free.
Most Americans don’t get their television via antenna anymore and instead broadcast networks are paid handsome fees from cable companies, like Comcast, for their programming. Aereo’s business model was built on using a farm of antennas in each town it operates and then providing the programming to subscribers over the Internet. They offered their service at a low cost only because they choose not to pay the redistribution fees that Comcast and others cable companies are required to pay.
NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX and PBS and other companies associated with the old system took Aereo to court and The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the company was in violation of the Copyright Act of 1976. The law gives the copyright owner the exclusive right to perform copyrighted work publicly. Despite argument from Internet and technology advocates about the damage the decision could do to innovation the court rightly ruled that you can’t just take someone’s work and make it available to others without paying the creator.
This was wildly different than the fight over the VCR, a piece of technology which the television and movie industry wrongly fought against. The VCR made it possible for people to record programming to which they were already legally entitled to receive. Aereo was selling programming that it wasn’t entitled to receive.
The Internet has remade the world. Anyone who knows how to do such things can obtain a free copy of nearly any song, television show, movie or photograph ever created. Many have argued, correctly, that the television and movie companies have moved much too slowly in dealing with this new reality. However, if their customers aren’t happy plenty of other entertainment options remain available including Netflix and YouTube. The customer has a right to put an antenna on their television or choose not to buy what the networks are providing. However, customers should not be able to choose not to pay for something and then get it somewhere else for a lower cost or for free.
Ultimately, this was a case about respecting the rights of the people who make things. If you write a book, make a television show or perform a song you, and you alone, should have the right to decide how that work is distributed. You can charge a fortune for a physical copy of your book, sell the song on iTunes for .99 and make the show free on YouTube. Those are all avenues that remain open to you. Your work will succeed or fail based on its worth and your business decisions.
Thankfully, The Supreme Court decided that the power to make those decisions remain with creators and no one else.
— From the Panama City Herald News Herald