Aereo and the Hubris of Innovation

Aereo LogoIt’s not every day that a copyright news story becomes mainstream news, especially one of the top stories of the day, but that certainly happened with yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling against Aereo.

For those who aren’t aware, Aereo is a TV streaming service that uses a series of tiny antennas, one per customer, to capture over-the-air broadcast television and stream it to customers via the Web. Aereo argued that this was not public performance of the broadcasters’ copyrighted works, but rather, was a series of thousands of private ones. It further argued that it is mere providing and renting equipment, namely antennas and DVRs, which are already legal for customers to use in their homes.

Broadcasters, fearing Aereo could harm the billions per year that they receive in retransmission fees from cable and satellite providers, sued. However, lower courts primarily sided with Aereo, including the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Broadcasters then appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard the case in April and, in a decision yesterday, overturned the lower court rulings.

According to the majority, Aereo functions as a cable company and the technological distinctions aren’t relevant. Further, the majority found that Aereo does publicly perform the works involved meaning its retransmission of television signals without permission is an infringement.

In short: Aereo, functionally, is a cable company and must play by the same rules as a cable company.

Even in the dissent, there wasn’t much love for Aereo. The dissenting judges felt that Aereo should not be allowed, but felt that current copyright law and the current arguments didn’t lay a groundwork for banning it. Instead, they either wanted the matter sent back to the lower court so broadcasters could make new arguments, or sent to Congress for new legislation.

But with Aereo’s defeat has come a slew of editorials and opinions. But among those who are critical of the ruling, one theme has emerged, the idea that Aereo’s defeat is a “Blow to innovation“, an “Attack on innovation” or an attempt to “protect entrenched interests at the expense of innovators“.

Whether you’re for or against the ruling, this language short changes the contributions of content creators and shows preference to one type of innovation over another.

Simply put, technology companies don’t have sole dominion over innovation or being innovators. Content creators are innovators as well and to say otherwise not only discounts their contributions, but their creativity and skill.

For the Love of Technology

I first and foremost consider myself a lover of technology and the ways it has enriched my life. I am in awe that, in my pocket is a cell “phone” that is more powerful than the first computer I purchased, I love how social media has made it easier to keep in touch with friends and how search engines have given me access to almost any piece of information I want instantly.

Without the Web, I would not have an audience, I would not be in mt current job and I most likely never would have met my significant other. Tech has enriched my life in countless ways.

But what do we put on those “phones”, share on Facebook or look at on the Web all day? Content. Specifically, content created by musicians, filmmakers, writers and visual artists. Without content, all technology brings us is just empty vessels. The Web has provided us countless new ways to communicate, but content creators, including yourself, provide the message.

Nextflix’s streaming service would be useless without the movies in it, Spotify would be pointless without the music and Aereo would be pointless without the television channels it captures.

However, some have tried to label the copyright fight as being about “content creators versus innovators” in a bid to demean those who support strong copyright, casting them as dead weight slowing down the beneficial innovation of tech companies.

But that is a false dichotomy. Though painting copyright holders with a broad brush is false by itself as nearly every human being alive is a copyright holder, even if they don’t realize it, separating content creators from innovators is an insult to work hard to produce work you enjoy.

Simply put, content creators are innovators. Right now countless musicians are toiling away trying to create the next hit song, filmmakers are working to create the next masterpiece and authors are trying to write the next great book. They are innovators, trying to create something new and something to change people’s lives.

It’s the exact same for content creators as tech companies looking to usurp the status quo. The drive to make something new, something world-changing and something popular. Content creators toil for the same reasons technologists do.

And just as technology moves forward, so to does art, music and cinema. The march of progress isn’t exclusive to technology and we are all richer for it. It’s what has given us the wealth of content that we have today.

Bottom Line

In an ideal world, people and companies that make our lives better would be fairly compensated for their contribution.

On that note, technology companies enrich our lives and deserve to be rewarded for it when they do. However, content creators do as well. A movie, a book or a song can be just as life-changing and life-enriching as the latest gadget or service. Content creators deserve the same consideration.

Things work best when the two sides work together and push each other. For example, easier editing tools have opened up new doors for filmmakers and musicians alike and sites like YouTube and SoundCloud have opened them up to an audience that, previously, they never could have found.

But in situations where the efforts aren’t cooperative, they need to be balanced. Favoring tech companies over creators isn’t a matter of favoring innovators over a monopoly, it’s a matter of favoring one type of innovator over another. That, in turn, is what the Aereo case is about, not one group trying to drag innovation down, but one group trying to protect their ability to innovate in their field.

Given that both content creators and technologists play a role in enriching your life and that both are required for the brave new world we are heading toward to reach its potential, we have to stop thinking about this as a war for or against innovation, but rather, a case study on how different types of innovation interplay.

It may seem like a small change. But if we can escape the “us vs. them” false dichotomy, it becomes a lot easier to work together and find real solutions that can make everyone happy.

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