December 30, 2012 | By Mitch Stoltz

2012 in Review: Suits Against Personal TV Technology And the Right to Innovate Without Permission

As the year draws to a close, EFF is looking back at the major trends influencing digital rights in 2012 and discussing where we are in the fight for free expression, innovation, fair use, and privacy. Click here to read other blog posts in this series.

This year has witnessed a few high-profile rounds of the age-old fight between Big Media and innovators who dare to create new media technologies without asking permission. This year's fights against Internet TV startup Aereo and the commercial-skipping DVR created by Dish Network are part of a sordid tradition of using copyright suits to squelch disruptive innovation. Fortunately, the innovators have won the first round in both of these cases, with help from EFF in the Aereo case. The courts refused to shut down these new technologies ahead of a trial. Both of those preliminary victories are now on appeal - and EFF will be there.

Aereo is a New York company that lets subscribers rent a tiny TV antenna at its facility, capture local broadcast TV, and watch it on Internet devices - essentially, moving the personal rooftop antenna to a central location. Dish's Ad Hopper video recorder automates the process of commercial-skipping for prime-time network TV. Both were sued by groups of major TV broadcasters and networks for copyright infringement.

The broadcasters' arguments in both cases are depressingly familiar. Essentially, they argued that enhancing viewers' private TV-watching by giving them more control of the experience is illegal without copyright holders' permission. They argued that whenever new technology makes TV-watching better (and thus more valuable), they have a right to the profits generated, and a veto power over features. One brief in favor of the broadcasters in the Aereo case even argued that anyone who wants to innovate in personal TV equipment should have to beg Congress for permission.

The networks also argued that allowing Aereo and the Ad Hopper to stay in business during the lawsuits would mean the death of television.

We've all seen this movie before. Copyright holders have sued the makers of the player piano, the audiocassette recorder, the VCR, the portable MP3 player, and the DVR, to name a few. Each time, they sought control and profit, not just over copies of their works, but over when, where, and how people experience them.

Federal appeals courts will take up the Aereo and Ad Hopper cases in 2013. EFF will continue sticking up for the users of these devices, and everyone who benefits from innovation without permission.


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