Aereo’s copyright solution: intentional inefficiency

Aereo's backward architecture could be the thing that keeps it in business.

Aereo, an online service that sends free over-the-air television broadcasts to subscribers, scored a big win in court this week.

At first glance, it would seem the service has to violate copyright. Aereo is grabbing TV content without paying for it and then passing it along to Aereo’s paying subscribers.

So how is Aereo pulling it off? Over at Ars Technica, Timothy B. Lee deconstructs the service’s blend of tech and legal precedent:

Aereo’s technology was designed from the ground up to take advantage of a landmark 2008 ruling holding that a “remote” DVR product offered by Cablevision was consistent with copyright law. Key to that ruling was Cablevision’s decision to create a separate copy of recorded TV programs for each user. While creating thousands of redundant copies makes little sense from a technical perspective, it turned out to be crucial from a legal point of view …

… When a user wants to view or record a television program, Aereo assigns him an antenna exclusively for his own use. And like Cablevision, when 1,000 users record the same program, Aereo creates 1,000 redundant copies. [Links included in original text; emphasis added.]

Creating lots of copies of the exact same content is inefficient. No one can argue that point. But if you can get past the absurdity, you have to admit Aereo’s architecture is quite clever. Take thousands of tiny antennas, combine them with abundant storage, and now you’ve got a disruptive service that might survive the onslaught of litigation.

Note: Aereo’s recent win only applies to a request for a preliminary injunction. Further court proceedings are likely, and you can bet there will be a long and winding appeals process.

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