On April 22, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc.  Aereo is a small New York-based company that provides services for capture and retransmission of over-the-air (OTA) television broadcasts on behalf of customers.

In many areas of the country, local stations broadcast public and major-network (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, etc.) television streams over-the-air for public reception.  Utilizing antennas positioned in or around the home, the general public can receive these broadcasts, which are often transmitted in high-definition and can be better quality than the signal received from a cable provider.  Various devices exist that have DVR  (i.e., Digital Video Recorder) capabilities for capturing and saving these broadcasts for later viewing.  All of this is free, legal, and becoming very popular for those looking to ditch their cable provider.

Enter Aereo:  For metropolitan markets where homeowners or apartment goers are limited in space or do not have good visibility to these open air signals, Aereo provides a service by which an individual can pay a recurring fee to lease a unique dime-sized antenna housed at a remote, but nearby, location.  The antenna receives effectively the same signals that the customer would receive if the customer installed the antenna at home.  The received signals are captured and retransmitted to the customer over their internet connection.  Broadcasted content can be paused, rewound, and recorded.

Major broadcasting companies including CBS, ABC, NBC and FOX sued Aereo in March 2012 for a preliminary injunction against its practices, arguing that the capture and retransmission of broadcasts to the customers amounts to a public performance of copyrighted material in contravention to the broadcasters’ rights.  After the injunction was denied, the broadcasters appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit but again were denied.

In January of this year, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.  Oral arguments are scheduled for April 22, 2014.  At least two major networks have indicated that they will remove their content from network television and convert to cable-only if Aereo is successful.  Meanwhile, a preliminary injunction was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit enjoining Aereo’s activities in major Tenth Circuit cities like Salt Lake City, UT and Denver, CO.  

This case involves defining the boundaries of copyright protection as it relates to the transmission of television programming over the internet, a medium that consumers are increasingly approaching for on-demand access to their favorite shows.  As such, the outcome of this case is likely to have a lasting effect on this market.