Supreme Court Ruling Opposes Aereo’s Streaming Service, But Leaves Many Issues Around Cloud Services Unsettled

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The Supreme Court has ruled that streaming-TV startup Aereo, which records over-the-air TV shows and streams them to users, is illegal because it performs copyrighted works without paying the rights holders. But the court’s ruling hasn’t made any specific recommendations regarding the operation of cloud hosted services like iCloud and Dropbox.

Launched in 2012, Aereo lets people rent a remote TV antenna that lets them broadcast TV to the cloud and stream them across their devices for a monthly fee. It has since been the subject of a Supreme Court case which pitted the cloud service against some of the world’s largest media companies. Being a cloud service, many suspected the ruling would have implications on how remote services, including personal cloud storage, are treated by law.

It turns out that the Supreme Court made no obvious proclamation around cloud services in general.

In Temple University law professor David Post’s analysis of Justice Stephen Breyer’s opinion (PDF), he said it only addressed the re-transmission of TV broadcasts, rather than the broader issues around cloud storage, streaming services, and gaming platforms.

Of course, Post expressed dismay regarding the outcome of the case, having argued in favor of Aereo, and saying that Aereo is merely “the functional equivalent of the Sony Betamax: consumers use it to record television programs for subsequent playback to themselves.”

Aereo blurred the lines between public and private media. Many of us typically, media stored in individual accounts on cloud services (ie. Apple’s iCloud or Microsoft’s Skydrive) is thought to be for private use, and not a “broadcast”. However, it becomes confusing when someone uses a cloud service to store a copy of a network show (say Bones) and stream it to themselves, because it doesn’t seem very different than recording Bones off a free TV signal and streaming it to their home.

In this case, SCOTUS ruled that Aereo was acting more like a traditional cable company, which challenged the ability to rebroadcast over-the-air TV in the 1970’s and lost.

Even though, the court’s decision left out cloud services, this still doesn’t mean that the issues around cloud services and private streaming are settled. Powerful media companies could continue to pursue cloud services if they see them as a threat.

Much is left unsettled.

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