Aereo: Agreeing with Justice Scalia

by Bob Schwartz

Aereo

It doesn’t happen often that I agree with Justice Antonin Scalia. On the law or much else.

But his dissent in today’s Supreme Court decision in ABC v. Aereo is pretty good and pretty right. By 6-3, the Court decided to allow Aereo to be subject to violation of copyright law.

As explained in an earlier post at the time of oral arguments, Aereo has devised a complex tech scheme by which it captures over-the-air-broadcasts at the request of subscribers, using tiny antennas that subscribers essentially time-share, and then allows subscribers to watch those broadcasts online.

In the opinion, the majority agreed with the networks, finding that this is just a too-clever-by-half way of getting around copyright law and avoiding paying retransmission fees, as cable companies are required to do. Justice Scalia found the reasoning and judgment of the majority deficient in many ways, and his dissent is well worth reading.

Among the points, he notes that exploiting loopholes is not illegitimate, and is in fact one of the things that lawyers are good at and are supposed to do. Justice Scalia does not necessarily think that Aereo should go without liability or responsibility, but that trying to make the law fit to reach a desirable result is not the way to get there. If the law doesn’t fit the technology, Congress is charged with and capable of fixing it. (Note that this is the connection between his strict constructionism and his very progressive position in this particular case.)

There was a lot of apocalyptic talk at oral arguments (Aereo would destroy broadcasting as we know it), and there is apocalyptic talk today (the somewhat fuzzy majority opinion leaves all sorts of cloud-based services under legal suspicion). The earlier post repeated the maxim: hard cases make bad law. This is a hard case, and whether the law is bad or not, it sure is an irresolute path to the future. About that, Justice Scalia is right.

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