WASHINGTON — Grappling with fast-changing technology, Supreme Court justices debated Tuesday whether they can protect the copyrights of TV broadcasters to the shows they send out without strangling innovations in the use of the Internet.
The high court heard arguments in a dispute between television broadcasters and Aereo Inc., which takes free television signals from the airwaves and charges subscribers to watch the programs on laptop computers, smartphones and televisions. The case has the potential to bring big changes to the television industry.
Several justices expressed concern that a ruling for the broadcasters could hamper the burgeoning world of cloud computing, which gives users access to a vast online computer network that stores and processes information.
Justice Stephen Breyer said the prospect makes him nervous. “Are we somehow catching other things that would really change life and shouldn’t?” Breyer asked.
Paul Clement, representing the broadcasters, tried to assure the court it could draw an appropriate line between Aereo’s service and cloud computing generally. People who merely retrieve what they have stored should have no reason to worry, he said.
But David Frederick, representing Aereo, said the cloud computing industry sees its $10 billion investment at risk if the court were to hold that anytime music or an image is stored online and then retrieved, the copyright law would be implicated.
About the service
Aereo’s service starts at $8 a month and is available in New York, Boston, Houston and Atlanta, among 11 metropolitan areas. Subscribers get about two dozen local over-the-air stations, plus the Bloomberg TV financial channel.
In each market, Aereo has a data center with thousands of antennas. When a subscriber wants to watch a show live or record it, the company temporarily assigns the customer an antenna and transmits the program over the Internet to the subscriber’s device or to a TV with a Roku or Apple TV streaming device.
The antenna is only used by one subscriber at a time, and Aereo says that’s much like the situation at home, where a viewer uses a personal antenna to watch over-the-air broadcasts for free.
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