There's a fascinating legal case working its way through the courts, and it's all about watching television. I'll tell you about it in a few minutes, but first I want you to join me in a little thought experiment. Read each of the following scenarios, then decide at which point you are starting to break the law. At what point do you become a pirate? If at any point you decide that you've crossed a line, take a moment to ask yourself why you've crossed it. What did you do that was different, thereby making you a criminal?
Let's start with an easy one. You own a television which you purchased at your local electronics superstore. It's paid for and you owe no money. You turn on that television and sit down to watch a show. You have cable services delivered to your house via the local big name telecom, a company whose services you pay for, month to month. Are you breaking any laws? Are you a pirate?
The second example is the same as above except that you record your shows to watch later. You may even fast forward through the commercials. Are you violating any copyright laws or engaging in piracy?
What if you have an antenna (remember those) and you pluck the signals out of the air? Here again, you might record the shows to watch later.
What if you record those shows, not on tape, but on a hard drive?
What if you decide to watch the show you recorded, not on your television, but on your tablet while you exercise on your treadmill? Are you now a criminal?
Instead of outright buying your antenna, you rent it from someone. How about now?
You decide you don't like that unsightly antenna at the side of your house, so you pay a company that puts up the antenna for you. They live a couple of blocks away and run a cable to your house. You might occasionally watch the shows on television (live) and you may sometimes record those shows, possibly on your hard drive to watch on your tablet while you pedal away on your exercise bike. Have any laws been broken yet? Has somebody's copyright been violated? Are you complicit in the committing of any crime?
Now, the company that puts up the antenna for you is on the other side of town. Rather than running a cable, they let you access the signal from the over the air capture (still using an antenna) using your Internet connection. The unsightly cables are gone and you just use whatever device you want to watch your TV shows. Are you now involved in piracy? Are you yourself a criminal or aiding and abetting a criminal?
These are tough questions, and that's the reason the judge hearing the case of Aereo vs the big name networks doesn't see it as an open and shut case. ABC, NBC, and others went to court to shut down the service provided by Aereo, seeking at the very least, an injunction to block the company until the case was heard. U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan said "No", taking 52 pages to explain that "No".
No one would suggest that you are breaking any law by putting up an antenna and capturing the signals wafting through the ether, whether or not you record the shows and store them on your hard drive to watch later. No sane person anyhow.
What Aereo does is put up little TV antennas all over the place, capture the over the air signals, then stream the signals to customers over their Internet connection. Aereo is renting access to their antennas and, by extension, what those antennas pick up.
Where do you draw the line? Do you? And why?
Whatever your answer, and I'd love to hear it, this is going to be a fascinating case to follow.