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Aereo has won an important ruling in a Massachusetts federal court.
U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton has denied an injunction request made by Hearst Station, owner of ABC affiliate WCVB-TV.
The broadcaster had argued in its copyright lawsuit that Aereo’s system of capturing over-the-air TV signals and delivering them to subscribers’ digital devices constituted a violation of its public performance rights. But according to the judge’s opinion, Hearst was not persuasive in convincing the court that it is likely to succeed on the merits of its public performance claim nor its argument that Aereo is unlawfully distributing copyrighted works. The judge also wrote that “Hearst has made a minimal showing of irreparable harm that is an insufficient basis for entering a preliminary injunction in its favor.”
The timing of the ruling happens as TV broadcasters are reportedly set to take a New York judge’s denial of an injunction against Aereo up to the Supreme Court.
Here, Judge Gorton notes that the 1st Circuit (which covers Massachusetts, among other states in the Northeast) hasn’t addressed the issue at hand.
Hearst argued that section 106 of the Copyright Act, giving copyright owners the exclusive rights to “perform the copyrighted [audiovisual] work publicly” was being violated. Aereo responded that it is transmitting private rather than public performances.
“Aereo’s interpretation is a better reading of the statute because the ‘canon against surplusage’ requires this Court to give meaning to every statutory term, if possible,” writes the judge in the ruling. “In short, while the Transmit Clause is not a model of clarity, the Court finds at this juncture that Aereo presents the more plausible interpretation.”
The judge notes that “it is possible that WCVB will be irreparably harmed in its ability to negotiate retransmission fees with cable providers,” before adding, “While the prospect of harm is real, Hearst has not shown that WCVB will suffer the ‘full magnitude’ of the claimed harm before the Court disposes of the case on the merits. Instead, it seems more likely that the harm will take several years to materialize.”
Aereo’s expansion from New York to across the country has set off multiple rounds of litigation, most recently in a lawsuit that was filed earlier this week in Utah. As the controversy lingers, a question has arisen as to what is the proper venue to hear the dispute between broadcasters and Aereo.
The digital service, backed by Barry Diller, has argued that disputes should be heard in New York, where the first case was filed. But Judge Gorton’s refused Aereo’s motion to transfer the case, saying, “Hearst’s decision to limit the scope of the suit to WCVB’s local programming and Aereo’s local activities also weighs in favor of resolving the suit here rather than in New York.”
Aereo made that transfer request partly in the hopes of gaining favorable jurisdiction in the 2nd Circuit (which covers New York). But now, Aereo has succeeded for the first time in convincing a judge in a new circuit that the broadcasters are unlikely to prevail in their copyright claims. It’s an important step for the company as broadcasters hold out hope that rulings concerning Aereo’s competitor, FilmOn, in two other circuits, provide the necessary circuit split to bring the case to the highest court in the country.
A WCVB-TV spokesperson comments, “The court was right to keep this case in Boston, the home of WCVB-TV. We will immediately appeal the court’s decision that allows Aereo to continue to engage in a commercial business that unlawfully profits by using WCVB’s copyrighted broadcasts and shows. We expect to prevail in this case.“
Chet Kanojia, chief executive at Aereo, says, “Today’s victory belongs to the consumer and today’s decision makes clear that that there is no reason that consumers should be limited to 1950s technology to access over-the-air broadcast television.”
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