from the lessons-for-Locast dept
Disclaimer: I did a teeny bit of legal work on a teeny part of Aereo’s defense against the litigation onslaught seeking to obliterate it. But that’s not why I think the Supreme Court’s decision enabling that obliteration was terrible. On the contrary, it’s why I wanted to work on the defense at all, because it was always apparent that trying to use copyright to crush Aereo was a terrible idea that would have terrible consequences. And time has, of course, born this prediction out.
It had never made sense why all these TV stations would be suing Aereo in the first place. After all, isn’t the thing that TV stations always want a larger viewership? With a larger viewership they can charge more for ads and make more money. So a service that helps them get that larger viewership (and at no cost to themselves) seems like something they should actually be glad to have. In any case, it was certainly quite odd to see them resent something that helped connect them with bigger audiences beyond what their broadcast signal could manage.
And it made even less sense for a public television station like WNET to be part of any of these lawsuits. Commercial profit was never supposed to be its goal. Instead, pledge drive after pledge drive has always begged the public for the funds necessary to show its programming. Yet there it was, now trying to eradicate a service that helped people actually watch that programming. Which necessarily prompts the question of why anyone should ever bother to give money to WNET ever again if it was so bound and determined to limit the number of people who could benefit from it.
Anyway, while the fight against Aereo made no sense, and the US Supreme Court decision killing it made even less, the result is that today we live in a world without it, where the reach and influence of local TV stations has effectively been damned to the geographical limits of their signal strength. And this pointless and artificial limitation has had a cost.
Because think about what has been happening in recent elections: results end up hyper-localized, with impenetrable divisions between red and blue states, urban and rural regions, large markets and small, etc. At least in the story of the country mouse and city mouse they both got to visit each other and learn what each other’s lives were like. But thanks to the Supreme Court, now it is so much harder for Americans everywhere to learn about what life is like outside the areas where they live.
Aereo helped build connections between these places by overcoming the barriers imposed by distance. Instead of people only being able to see the broadcasts they could receive on their own antennas, it gave them a window into other communities by allowing them to essentially rent antennas in these other places and experience the broadcasts aimed for people there. Certainly if they’d rented an entire house in these other places there would have been no issue with them using its antenna to watch these broadcasts. So it hardly follows that it should be illegal if they simply saved the enormous expense of moving to that other place and instead only rented the antenna. (Which, despite the Supreme Court’s technical misunderstanding about what Aereo did, is exactly what Aereo – and, for the past year or so, now Locast – actually did.)
Especially not when, as described above, it would have been good for those stations. And especially not when it also would have been good for the nation. It does us no good to remain little regional enclaves unable to find common ground between each other. Sharing in each other’s broadcast media would go a long way to bridging those geographically-enforced cultural gaps. Indeed, it would seem to vindicate the very goals of copyright, to promote the progress of arts and sciences, to ensure that local insight could be efficiently exchanged among these regions. Instead, however, the Supreme Court, in its decision to contort copyright law to effectively ban Aereo, doubled-down on the physical restrictions curtailing that exchange with artificial legal barriers that can only serve to enforce the effects of that distance upon the national electorate. And our democracy has been paying the price for this decision ever since.
Perhaps things can be different with Locast. While too new to have been able to have had as much impact on national political culture as a mature service would have had by now, since last year it has tried to thread the confusing needle the Supreme Court set out for these sorts of antenna-rental services. As the courts now stand to review the legal questions they raise again, one can only hope the courts better understand this time around the public interest in knowledge exchange that’s at stake, which copyright law is supposed to advance, not smother.