Report: Aereo Legality Could Hinge on Patents

NEW YORK: Aereo’s copyright infringement case may rest on its patents, according to ReadWriteWeb. The publication quotes an IP expert saying that patents typically have “no relevance” in copyright cases, but that Aereo is an exception.

Aereo’s picks up around 20 over-the-air TV channels in New York, and relays them to antennas rented by individual subscribers. The service, which launched in beta last March, is currently compatible with Apple and Roku devices via a downloadable app. Broadcasters in the city have sued for copyright infringement.

Aereo says the way it is retransmits TV signals is not subject to copyright claims. Copyright law applies to TV station signals rebroadcast by multichannel video providers to the general public. Aereo claims to be exempt because it does not rebroadcast TV signals publicly, per se, but rather makes them available to individual subscribers who each rent a dime-sized antenna located in a large, fixed array.

Aereo claims its service is legal under a precedent set by a lawsuit involving the launch of Cablevision’s digital video recorder. Cartoon Network sued Cablevision, which prevailed by demonstrating that its DVR did not infringe on Cartoon’s public performance right under copyright law:

“To perform or display a work ‘publicly’ means… to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance or display of the work… to the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance or display receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.”

A federal judge in the Cablevision case ruled that its DVR service constituted a private, not a public, performance. Judge Alison Nathan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York suggested a likewise interpretation of Aereo in her denial of an injunction against the service:

“Aereo’s use of single antennas does… reinforce the conclusion that the copies created by Aereo’s system are unique and accessible only to a particular user, as they indicate that the copies are created using wholly distinct signal paths.”

It is not clear, however, how Aereo’s demodulation scheme may influence the determination of its public or private nature. The patents state that demodulation takes place in a “pipeline.”

“Processing pipelines are used to demodulate, transcode and index the content transmissions to produce content data that are streamed to users,” the patent states. “In this way the feeds from the antennas can be assessed by users over a network connection.”

The demod patent application describes a system that relies on switching rather than dedicated demodulators and tuners. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has yet to review Aereo’s filings, RWW says. The website’s coverage, “Is Barry Diller Stealing Broadcasters’ Content? Aereo Patent Applications Say Maybe Not,” is here. Beware of an incessant pop-up video ad.
~ Deborah D. McAdams