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Aereo to Justices: Kill Us, and You'll Kill the Cloud

Chet Kanojia, Aereo's chief executive officer, speaking in front of the Supreme Court in Washington
Chet Kanojia, Aereo's chief executive officer, speaking in front of the Supreme Court in WashingtonPhotograph by Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday about the legality of Aereo, the Internet-television company that offers access to broadcast television channels via thousands of tiny antennas. While the case has been largely framed as a fight over the future of television, Aereo argues that it is also vital to the world of cloud computing. This seemed to resonate with at least some justices, who expressed concern that they would drag down unrelated services by ruling against Aereo. “Are we somehow catching other things that would really change life and shouldn’t,” said Justice Stephen Breyer, according to the Associated Press. The answer lies in whether you think Aereo is more like a schoolteacher’s Dropbox account or a kind of nefarious Kinko’s.

Aereo and its backers say that making cloud services responsible for policing copyright violations will imperil the entire idea of allowing users to access information that exists on remote servers instead of on their own hard drives. In an amicus brief, the Consumer Federation of America and the Consumers Union raise the example of a teacher who takes various video clips from copyrighted sources at school, then uploads them to her Dropbox account to work on the lesson plan from home. In this analogy, Aereo is Dropbox, a simple way to move files around. The teacher’s actions would be legal under fair use, they argue. “However, if this Court were to find that providing a consumer-selected video from a cloud storage source represents a public performance, as Petitioners assert, the ability of Dropbox to legally provide this teacher with access to her own files would—at the very least— be subject to serious question.”