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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