When VCRs came on the market more than 30 years ago, the devices gave consumers unprecedented power to watch television shows on their schedules and not the timetable selected by network executives.
Ever since, the entertainment industry has been trying to wrest back control. First, the studios unsuccessfully sued VCR manufacturer Sony for copyright infringement; the studios lost that case in 1984. More recently, a group of companies unsuccessfully claimed in court that Cablevision infringes copyright with its remote DVRs.
This year TV studios sued Barry Diller's Aereo, which recently unveiled a $12 monthly service that allows people to watch over-the-air TV shows on iPhones, iPads, Roku and other devices. Shortly before launching, Aereo installed thousands of antennas, each the size of a dime, in various New York locales. Aereo uses those antennas to capture over-the-air broadcasts, creating individual recordings of them for customers' personal use, and then allowing customers to play back those recordings with a remote digital video recorder.
Aereo argues that it's merely enabling activity that consumers have every right to do themselves -- install antennas, receive TV transmissions, and time-shift with remote DVRs.
The studios don't see it that way. They asked for an injunction shutting Aereo down, arguing that it time-shifting and device-shifting -- that is, watching a program on an iPhone or computer -- is fundamentally different than just time-shifting to aTV set.
Earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge Alison Nathan in New York declined to issue a preliminary injunction shuttering Aereo. The networks appealed to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which is now considering the matter.
Late last week, a coalition of public interest groups sided against the networks in a friend-of-the-court brief. "There is much more at stake in this litigation than the continued operation of one company," the groups Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge and the Consumer Electronics Association wrote in papers filed with the 2nd Circuit.
"By making broadcast programming more accessible, and by creating more choices for private viewing technologies, Aereo improves and does not disrupt the free television industry. Aereo serves the public interest, and its service should not be enjoined."