WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court seemed to have conflicting impulses on Tuesday in considering a request from television broadcasters to shut down Aereo, an Internet startup that the broadcasters say threatens the economic viability of their businesses.
On the one hand, most of the justices seemed to think that the service was too clever by half.
"Your technological model," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told Aereo's lawyer, "is based solely on circumventing legal prohibitions that you don't want to comply with."
But Justice Stephen G. Breyer, echoing sentiments of other members of the court, said "what disturbs me on the other side is, I don't understand what a decision" against Aereo "should mean for other technologies," notably cloud computing.
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The justices seemed keenly aware that their ruling would have vast implications for the broadcast industry and for technical innovations involving cloud computing.
Aereo uses arrays of small antennas to stream over-the-air television signals to subscribers, allowing them to record and watch programs on their smartphones, tablets and computers. The broadcasters say this amounts to theft of their content and violates copyright laws.
The broadcasters say a ruling in favor of Aereo would jeopardize the billions of dollars in retransmission fees that cable and satellite systems pay to networks and local stations for the right
to distribute their programming.
Aereo responds that it is merely helping its subscribers do what they could lawfully do since the era of rabbit-ear antennas: watch free broadcast television delivered over public airwaves. The case turns on a part of the copyright law that requires copyright owners' permission for "public performances" of their work. The law defines such performances to include retransmission to the public.