Robot Law and the Future of TV

A laptop with a television antenna.

Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images

In the media industry, displeasure is often announced with copyright lawsuits.

A few weeks ago, Barry Diller and IAC launched Aereo, the “rent-an-antenna” service that brings broadcast TV to your desktop—with a DVR service to boot. At the time, I pointed out that the service was a legal innovation as much as it was a technological one, and that it remained to be seen whether the networks, which have usually defended their turf from such newcomers, would take kindly to the arrival of Aereo.

Then last week, the networks sued Aereo for copyright infringement.

Will they win? Aereo will probably argue that it is simply renting customers individualized antennae, which do exactly what customers ask of them and nothing more: Tune into this station, record that program on my DVR. As such, Aereo is merely an extension of the user—a kind of robot, so to speak, that merely does what the user requests.

If the judge agrees, then Aereo has a good chance of winning, because the user has the right to set up an antenna and DVR. (Copyright geeks will want to reread the Cablevision decision.) If, on the other hand, the judge thinks that Aereo is copying material that belongs to the network, then it will lose.

In short, it’s the latest installment of “robot law.”

Whether Aereo is a mere robot or, more technically, an amanuensis is in large part a technical question that will depend on the design of Aereo. Does your antenna have a mind of its own?

Such are the questions that will decide the future of the media in the 21st century.