When copyright rules lead to wasted innovation

Aereo is undoubtedly innovative. But it's a waste of effort nonetheless.

An interesting court ruling came out of America yesterday, as the Second Circuit court of appeals ruled that Aereo, an internet TV company, does not violate copyright by streaming TV programmes to users without the networks' consent. PaidContent's Jeff John Roberts reports:

Aereo captures over-the-air TV signals by means of tiny antennas and streams them to subscribers who watch and record shows on their mobile devices or computer browsers. Aereo’s antennas are not just a marvel of technology (see photos here) — they’re also the key to a legal strategy that helps the company avoid copyright infringement.

The trick that Aereo is using relies on the fact that, under American copyright law, it is legal to "shift" copyrighted material in a number of ways. So you can "time shift" (record it to watch later), "format shift" (rip a CD onto your computer), and "location shift" (use a service like Slingbox to watch your cable TV on the move), and, provided you do it only for your own consumption, no copyright infringement has occurred. Aereo, which has great banks of 5p-coin-sized antennas in a building in Brooklyn, is legally just providing the third of those services; except instead of plugging something in to your cable box at home, it basically moves your entire TV into its building, and broadcasts the whole thing back to you.

There's certainly some impressive technology being used. Aereo gets the antennas so small by only listening in on a tiny section of the TV spectrum with each one, and changing which part that is depending on what the viewer wants to watch. And the company is also using "major advances in transcoding technology and cloud storage" to make it affordable to stream the live TV, and let people pause, rewind, and record what they're watching.

But while it's fun to cheer Aereo's technological advances – and certainly a good thing for the US media economy to actually experience some competition for the first time in a while – they aren't, in themselves, a good thing.

All of this innovation – the tiny antennas, better transcoding technology, and office placed with line-of-sight to the Empire State Building for perfect reception – isn't being focused towards making life better for customers, or even just making money for Aereo. Instead, it's just being used to get around the law.

The government could render all that effort useless overnight by just allowing Aereo to stream signal from one aerial to all its users at once. That would let Aereo offer lower prices, or enable competitors who don't have access to the technology or location to set up too.

It's as though we lived in a world where the Government required all bikes to only have one wheel, and were praising a company which had made the easiest-to-ride unicycle ever. It would be a mean feat of technological innovation; but it would also be a largely pointless one.

An Aereo antenna. Photograph: Aereo

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation