THE BOSTON-BORN STARTUP AEREO offered consumers a deal that was too good to be true: Low-cost screening of broadcast material otherwise protected by copyright. The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling on Wednesday, rightfully forced the company to pay for its content or go out of business.
Aereo allowed users to watch over-the-air television broadcasts on their computers. Since over-the-air signals are free to everyone, the company believed it could legally capture and retransmit those signals to its customers over the Internet. The process involved thousands of tiny antennas, so that the company could claim it wasn’t technically sharing content. But in the 1976 Copyright Act, Congress explicitly stopped local cable companies from distributing copyrighted broadcasts without permission from the network. Aereo attempted to dazzle justices with high-tech hair-splitting about why its rebroadcasts differed from older technologies, but Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, concluded Aereo was “substantially similar” to cable companies that rebroadcast network shows. Those companies have to pay for their content. If Aereo wants to have a future, it will have to follow suit.