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Stop Signs are Forever

A plucky little start-up called Aereo has the entertainment-lawyer complex in a tizzy. What the company does, in essence, is allow you to rent a small television antenna and corresponding hard drive, located off-site at an office in your city. Aereo subscribers can log on to the company’s website and watch broadcast television at their convenience instead of whatever timeslot the network bosses think best. It’s like a DVR, but Aereo doesn’t pay the networks anything for capturing and storing the free broadcasts, and therein lies the rub.

The fact that Aereo allows you to watch “Parks and Recreation” whenever you want rather than at 8:30 ET has the broadcast networks apoplectic, and they’ve sued the company all the way to the Supreme Court. If the networks lose the case, they’ve threatened to take their ball and go home, eliminating terrestrial transmissions altogether and leaving many elderly and economically disadvantaged consumers in the lurch.

It’s not surprising that old media has once again turned to the courts to protect their outdated business model from new technology, but it is disappointing. Every time someone comes up with something that makes consumers’ lives easier at the expense of the fat cats at the ‘BCs, they sue — innovation, unlike corporate lawyers, isn’t on retainer.

Whatever the court decides, the networks will undoubtedly be on the wrong side of history. A copyright just ain’t what used to be, and that’s a good thing for anyone not named Les Moonves.

There was a time when experiencing media meant one had to be around to see it happen — the only way to hear War of the Worlds in 1938 was to be sitting next to your radio in your living room. As time and technology progressed, you could make recordings of things you heard on the radio, and eventually, saw on TV. Each of those steps eroded the power of the copyright holder a little bit more until we arrived here, a good way into the 21st century. In our fully digital age, a work of acting or music can be copied millions of times overnight.

The concept of a corporation “owning” a performance like a television show or hit single is anachronistic. What a content originator controls, to borrow a legal term, is the first sale of their work — the first time they put their song or performance out there, it’s all theirs. And whatever profit they can derive from it, be it through concert ticket sales or online advertising or simply fame, that’s all theirs, too.

But what they can’t control anymore — and notably, what the corporate middlemen can’t control — is what happens from there. It’s a pro-consumer consequence of high-speed internet, mass storage devices, and push-of-a-button entertainment options that are part and parcel to the modern age.

It’s what Napster showed the world 15 years ago and what YouTube continues to prove everyday. There’s no longer a distinction between a “private performance” and a “public performance” — those are the legal terms of consequence in the Aereo case — because the former has ceased to exist. In the age of camera phones and DVRs, it’s all public anymore, and we can’t unring the bell.

The title of this column is a rip-off of the famous “Hamlet,” soliloquy; “the Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune” being Bill Shakespeare’s idiomatic phrase for the often-harsh realities of life. (Surely the First Folio is in the public domain, right?)

It’s long past time for the ABCs and NBCs of the world to accept the harsh realities of the digital age. It’s time for them to steer into the skid, stop litigating and start innovating. Because the idea behind Aereo isn’t going away. Technology can’t be sued into oblivion; it marches ever forward, the slings and arrows of troglodytes be damned.

Nate Strauch is a reporter and columnist with the Sherman-Denison (TX) Herald Democrat. Email him at nstrauch@heralddemocrat.com.

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