The Supreme Court on Tuesday wrestled with a case that could change the future of television — a fight between the networks and an online startup that relays their shows to customers for a fee.
The networks are challenging Aereo, a two-year-old service that charges $8 to $12 a month to stream programming from NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, the CW and PBS to the smartphones, tablets and computers of its customers.
The networks say the service violates copyright law and amounts to theft.
At an oral argument, justices expressed concern that ruling for the networks could chill the development of cloud computing.
“Are we somehow catching other things that would really change life and shouldn’t?” Justice Stephen Breyer asked, according to The Associated Press.
For Aereo, its very future rests on the ruling. For the broadcasters, already hammered by declining viewership, a loss could undercut the legal foundation requiring cable and satellite companies to pay copyright fees to carry network shows.
An antenna the size of a dime is assigned to each Aereo customer and physically kept at the company's facilities. It then streams programming over the Internet to customers, who can watch live or store shows for later.
The case rests on the obscurities of federal copyright law and the legal distinction between public and private performances of copyrighted work.
Aereo argues that it is not covered by the law. Because the antennas are assigned individually, it says, it is delivering thousands of individual performances, not a single public one.
Chief Justice John Roberts asked a lawyer for Aereo whether the company needed the antennas for any reason besides avoiding paying the networks.
The lawyer said it was much cheaper for Aereo to add equipment as it grows than to use one large antenna, the AP reported.
The Supreme Court will decide the case by late June.