Broadcasters challenged this arrangement, alleging copyright infringement. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Aereo’s favor, finding that no copyright infringement had taken place. The United States Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that Aereo’s scheme did infringe the U.S. copyright laws and ordered Aereo to stop making further use of their system. The decision put paid to the business model that had been employed prior to the Supreme Court decision. Aereo did not throw in the towel and tried to reconstitute itself as a cable company. However, in October a judge in New York approved a ban that prohibited the company from retransmitting live TV broadcasts.
Several weeks later, in November, the company filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy law, which is intended to enable a company to restructure its operations under court protection. However, on December 24, 2014 the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan ruled that Aereo can go forward with the sale of its assets via an auction, which indicates that the company will be liquidated. Significantly, the court issued its ruling only after it reached agreement with certain major broadcasters, including CBS, Comcast, ABC and Fox, who will be allowed to attend the auction. As well, Aereo undertook to provide these broadcasters with a weekly update on the progress of the auction process.
The question immediately jumps to mind: why are the broadcasters so interested in monitoring the liquidation of Aereo’s assets? After all, the Supreme Court effectively shut the company down; what difference will it make to the broadcasters to whom and under what circumstances the company’s remaining hard assets are put up for sale ? The answer seems to lie in the fact that these broadcasters are concerned that the purchaser of these assets could use them as the springboard for another attempt to transmit content to end users without paying the content providers. This is so, even if the company itself has undertaken before the court that it will not recommence such activities in the future.
The concern expressed by the broadcasters is particularly interesting in light of the apparent disdain they have shown for the Aereo business model. Thus CBS chief executive Les Moonves is reported to have said in August 2014 that while Aereo attracted “a lot of attention for a service that virtually no one was using.” More generally, commentators wondered just how many people would ever sign up for the service, given that the broadcast signals are anyway free if one simply uses an appropriate antenna. But even if Aereo was a mere gnat in the firmament of television broadcasting, it was enjoying much more rapid growth than other content distribution channels. The Wall Street Journal estimates that Aereo had 108,000 subscribers in 14 cities when it closed down in June. This number pales in comparison with the reported 35 million subscribers at Netflix and Comcast’s base of 22.5 million. But Aereo’s rate of growth gave the industry pause for concern.