How SCOTUS Tried to Limit Its Own Decision on Aereo

Embedded in today's landmark TV copyright ruling is an insistence that the decision won't hinder innovation. 
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Television cameras are seen in front of the Supreme Court on June 19 (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The Supreme Court just handed down a decision that will have far-reaching implications for the future of television: Aereo, the streaming TV service, has violated the Copyright Act. In a 6-3 ruling, the Court found Aereo's service to be illegal in its playback of TV broadcasters' recordings—even though the service captures those shows over the air and obtains individual copies for each viewer. 

The decision will likely mean death for Aereo; what about, though, for other startups? What about for innovation in general? As SCOTUSBlog noted, "the ruling goes out of its way in Aereo to say that its ruling does not endanger other technologies." 

Here is the relevant sentence from the summary of the ruling—section (c), in the screenshot below:

And here is the relevant detail from the ruling:

Aereo and many of its supporting amici argue that to apply the Transmit Clause to Aereo’s conduct will impose copyright liability on other technologies, including new technologies, that Congress could not possibly have wanted to reach. We agree that Congress, while intending the Transmit Clause to apply broadly to cable companies and their equivalents, did not intend to discourage or to control the emergence or use of different kinds of technologies. But we do not believe that our limited holding today will have that effect.... 

We cannot now answer more precisely how the Transmit Clause or other provisions of the Copyright Act will apply to technologies not before us. We agree with the Solicitor General that “[q]uestions involving cloud computing, [remote storage] DVRs, and other novel issues not before the Court, as to which ‘Congress has not plainly marked [the] course,’ should await a case in which they are squarely presented.” Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 34 (quoting Sony, supra, at 431 (alteration in original)). And we note that, to the extent commercial actors or other interested entities may be concerned with the relationship between the development and use of such technologies and the Copyright Act, they are of course free to seek action from Congress. Cf. Digital Millennium Copyright Act, 17 U. S. C. §512

You could read all that as a preemptive response to the many questions the Aereo ruling naturally prompts: If Aereo's business is illegal, what does that mean for the technological culture the company represents? It's worth noting, though, that the justices went out of their way to issue that kind of response at all: The Court's business, after all, is to answer legal questions—not cultural ones.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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