The crowds are so thick in Austin, Texas, that locals are using an Avoid Humans app to find some peace and quiet, and the warning at the convention center of South By Southwest Interactive goes something like this: “Only one person per escalator step OR YOU WILL BREAK IT!”
So it goes at this sprawling showcase of startups and big ideas. Naturally, the broadcast television disruptor, Aereo, timed the launch of its Austin service to South By Southwest just as the Supreme Court decided to take up a dispute between the startup and big broadcasters.
At issue is whether Aereo, under U.S. copyright law, can continue to avoid paying license fees to rebroadcast content as it brings live, broadcast television through its tiny antennas. The service allows users in 13 cities to watch broadcast TV online, for $8 a month.
Broadcasters call it theft, the Justice Department backed them up, and soon, the high court will hear the case.
“We urged the court to take the case as well, which is unusual,” said Aereo’s founder and CEO, Chet Kanojia, during an interview in Austin. “But we did it simply because it was very obvious that the strategy for the other side was to kill us by suing us in every possible jurisdiction. It’s better strategically for us to force the issue now.”
It could have serious ramifications for the way we watch TV, and more immediately, what kinds of sports and programming we can get on TV, as The New Yorker lays out:
“Whatever the reason for the Court’s interest, the broadcast networks and their partners have warned that they are not above holding their programming hostage if Aereo prevails. In an amicus brief supporting the networks, the National Football League and Major League Baseball argue that Aereo’s business model jeopardizes billions of dollars in license fees. The leagues say that they will have to consider removing their games from the public airwaves and placing them exclusively on cable to keep them away from Aereo’s antennae.”
Kanojia argues he’s on the side of the progress. “This is not a company started just to we could milk a situation,” he says. “We firmly believe in the idea that change and progress should be made. There is no logic in me paying for 500 channels that I don’t watch. There is no incentive on the incumbents to change, so it takes somebody like us, or the Dish guys are great, too, to come in and say, this is the trend, life is changing. The Internet is happening to us whether we like it or not.”
When asked whether he has a contingency plan if the Supreme Court rules against his company, Kanojia simply said, “No.”