NRI’s device stirs legal fight with TV giants in US

WASHINGTON: It is the size of a postage stamp, but is being described as an invention that could topple titans. Indeed, the titans have all ganged up together to stamp out the little guy who has challenged them, dragging him all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which will hear the case this coming April. Little guy is unfazed.

Having fended them off and won in lower courts, Chaitanya (“Chet”) Kanojia is looking forward to the day the US Apex Court will hear case no 13-461 involving the Goliaths, ABC, NBC, Fox et al. v Aereo Inc, his nifty two-year old company that he sees as the David in this battle. He says can’t imagine the court won’t be on the side of such a consumer-friendly innovation he’s provided

Even accounting for the constant flow of disruptive technologies that is the life-blood of innovation, what Bhopal-native Kanojia has done has shaken the American broadcast industry to its nearly century-old roots. Simply put, the stamp-sized antenna from his company Aereo lets you watch regular TV on any device – such as a phone or tablet or laptop – without lugging around an antenna or set-top box or any of the wire and cables that comes with the current system. For a few bucks a month, it even lets you record shows for later viewing with cloud-based DVR
For long suffering victims of broadcast monopolies who are saddled with scores of useless channels and bills running up to $100 a month, what’s not to love in this cord-cutting, TV-on-the-go exercise, where Aereo’s antennas just pick up signals off the air?

Well, for one, there’s a small matter of copyright infringement, argued the consortium of 17 broadcasting giants ranging from Disney’s ABC to Comcast NBC to 21st Century Fox. They maintained that Aereo was a threat both to their business model, by undermining the cable re-transmission fees, and the size of their audience. While copyright law lets individuals watch anything they pick up by antennas as long as it is for their private use, broadcasters maintained that Aereo’s transmissions constitute a “public performance” that requires Aereo to pay for retransmitting them. But the courts, including a federal appeals court have ruled that Aereo’s streams to subscribers were not “public performances,” and thus did not constitute copyright infringement. The ruling shook the broadcast industry that has enjoyed a stranglehold on the transmission business even with the advent of the Internet. Many of them are now considering taking themselves off the air and converting themselves to a cable-only channel, saying they can’t sit by and have their signals stolen. For Kanodia’s cheerleaders, it is a sign of pique by Big Broadcast, which like Big Pharma, finds the big profits it has long enjoyed as a powerful monopoly challenged by the little guy.

The story goes that two years ago when Kanojia first started his company, he visited the offices of the four big broadcast television networks to tell them about his plan to upend their business and strike a deal.
Their response: We’ll see you in court. Now, with victories in the lower courts, the 43-year old Indian disrupter is ready to topple a legacy business which he sees as predatory and having feasted on the system since the 1970s.