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.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.