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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation